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Movie Review of the Week – “Clouds of Sils Maria”

Movie Review of the Week – “Clouds of Sils Maria”
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By Alison Bailes

Just last week I was applauding an apparent (very small) surge in films headlined by women (“The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, “Woman in Gold”) so now I can report that an epidemic is upon us! With Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria”, Juliette Binoche grabs the baton of female-centric cinema and wields it proudly.

Whatever she stars in, whether it’s brainy art-house fare (“Certified Copy”) or silly monster movies (“Godzilla”), Binoche is infinitely watchable.  Her commitment to her roles is admirable and even in middling movies, she is always the luminous focal point imbuing her characters with truth and emotion.  It’s no different in this overly arty contemplation of acting and aging. And this time she is matched by the equally absorbing Kristen Stewart, who finally has a role befitting her 21st century dashed off performance style.

Binoche plays Maria Enders, a hugely successful 40-something actress, not unlike herself I suppose. Maria moves smoothly between art house and blockbuster, is juggling a divorce and has a super efficient personal assistant Val (Stewart) to help her deal with the demands of her job. En route to pay tribute to the playwright who cast her in her first project 20 years ago, Maria faces a quandary: whether to revive the original play but this time playing the older character Helena, a lesbian who falls for a young “All About Eve” go-getter. Her former role is to be played by popster teen celeb Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz).  Not only does this decision require Maria to face her own maturity, it also allows Assayas to delve into issues concerning fame, aging, and the shifting power dynamic between actresses.

This is all meaty stuff, but the finished product isn’t nearly as juicy as it would appear. Taking a lofty, talky approach, Assayas rests on trite superficiality where complexity is needed.  Maria and Val spar endlessly about whether or not she should take the role. When Maria opts to do it, she and Val run lines as they hike around the gorgeous Swiss countryside. Soon, the dialogue from the play becomes indecipherable from their conversations. Gradually, as Maria rehearses the role of Helena, Maria becomes hardened, changing before our eyes from a soft, feminine artist to a short-haired, suited, business woman. Is this the only way Assayas can think of to illustrate art bleeding into life? Is he implying a lesbian relationship between Maria and Val?  It’s not clear but it seems an altogether too reductive and simplistic device.

Like last year’s “Birdman”, this meta-commentary on the lives of actors (Stewart gets to take some jabs at tween mega-hits) attempts to be inside and deep, but just ends up being somewhat pretentious and contrived. The title of the play within the film “Maloja Snake” refers to the astounding cloud formations near the Swiss town of Sils Maria. Like that mountain mist that snakes through the Alpine valley, this work is just too foggy and out of reach.


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