Film

In 'Clouds of Sils Maria' Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart Have Electrifying Chemistry

Less Birdman and more Bergman, Clouds of Sils Maria delves deeply into the complex psychology of its characters.


Clouds of Sils Maria

Director: Olivier Assayas
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz
Distributor: Paramount
Studio: CG Cinéma, Pallas Film, CAB Productions, Vortex Sutra, Arte France Cinéma, Orange Studio, Radio Télévision Suisse, SRG SSR idée suisse
US Release Date: 2015-07-14

Forget the undeserved Birdman (2014) hype, Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria is the must-see movie about artistic angst. In this hypnotic backstage drama, Juliette Binoche stars as Maria Enders, an established veteran actress who signs up for a revival of a play that brought her fame 20 years earlier.

The play is about an intense erotic relationship between a young girl and an older woman. Maria played the young girl in the original production, and now she is asked to play the older woman in the revival. She is hesitant, but her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) insists that the revival would be good for her career, and that Jo-Ann (Chloë Grace Moretz), the actress taking over the role of the young girl, is serious about the part. Jo-Ann wants to reinvent her public image after a string of scandals, and Maria, with an impending divorce and other personal demons, isn’t in a position to judge.

A significant portion of the film revolves around Maria and Valentine as they rehearse for the play. In between line readings, they have philosophical conversations about aging, pop culture, memory, love, and everything else in between. Binoche and Stewart’s electrifying chemistry brings to mind Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) trilogy and Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre (1981). Their scenes remind us how captivating a simple conversation can be.

The film, to borrow a term coined by Nathaniel Rogers of The Film Experience, is a dream come true for “actressexuals”. At a time when audiences are starved for substantial films about women, Assayas fills the screen with three captivating female characters. Binoche, Stewart, and Moretz represent three generations of actresses, and to see them interact with one another is a rare treat.

Maria often reflects on her legacy, and Binoche captures the anxiety of aging in a youth-obsessed society, as well as the acceptance of a life full of accomplishments. Binoche gives a bold performance that nearly borders on self-parody, but by the end, we’re certain that she has created a unique character and isn’t just playing a meta-version of herself.

The same can be said about Stewart. Valentine exhibits the same tomboy punk-rock fashion sense we’ve seen from Stewart in the tabloids, but she is a complex character with mysterious motivations. Since the Twilight (2008) franchise, Stewart has successfully transitioned into a fine young actress. With her performance in this film, as well as in recent independent productions like Still Alice (2014) and Camp X-Ray (2014), Stewart all but demands that we take her seriously, and we do without any reservations.

Moretz has a blast with Jo-Ann, the stereotypical off-the-rails Hollywood starlet. Jo-Ann is basically the opposite of Moretz, who has managed to star in smart films and is never photographed in the tabloids. The contrast is fun, and Moretz captures Jo-Ann’s icy traits without ever being condescending toward the many real-life actresses she emulates.

At times, the film can be pretentious. The meta-commentary, while interesting for those who know about the stars, is obnoxious. It’s been done before in countless films and television series, and at this point, the ironic self-awareness just takes us out of the narrative. The casual references to Twilight didn't excite me as much as the wonderful scenes in which Maria and Valentine bond over a bottle of wine.

When Assayas focuses on the riveting conversations between the characters, in particular Maria and Valentine, the film is as good as anything he’s ever made. When he over-intellectualizes with opaque symbolism, he bites off more than he can chew. The third act contains a twist that brings to mind Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), and as intellectually stimulating as it may be for some viewers, it’s not exactly satisfying.

Unlike most filmmakers, Assayas gets better with age. There’s no denying the superior quality of his recent films. The subject matter of Clouds of Sils Maria is reminiscent of Assayas’ ‘90s art-house hit Irma Vep (1996), but Clouds of Sils Maria is the better film. The conversations between the characters are more engaging, and the construction of the plot is more comprehensible. When all is said and done, Clouds of Sils Maria may be Assaysas’ definitive backstage drama, even with its disappointing denouement.

Assayas’ approach to the actors-playing-actors genre avoids the annoying narcissism of similar films. Less Birdman and more Bergman, Clouds of Sils Maria delves deeply into the complex psychology of its characters. Whether it’s the erotic tension between Maria and Valentine or Assayas’ broader commentary on the nature of performance and role-playing in everyday life, there’s a lot to contemplate. Viewers who aren’t interested in analyzing what, exactly, the clouds of Sils Maria are supposed to symbolize needn’t worry. Binoche, Stewart, and Moretz are enchanting, and they elevate the film high above those hazy clouds.

Note: There were no significant extras with this DVD.

7


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

Great Peacock Stares Down Mortality With "High Wind" (premiere + interview)

Southern rock's Great Peacock offer up a tune that vocalist Andrew Nelson says encompasses their upcoming LP's themes. "You are going to die one day. You can't stop the negative things life throws at you from happening. But, you can make the most of it."

Music

The 80 Best Albums of 2015

Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with stellar albums. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 80 albums as best of the year.

Film

Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.

Books

The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.

Music

Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.

Music

King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Music

Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.

Music

Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.

Music

Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.

Music

The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.

Music

Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.

Film

The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.

Music

'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.

Music

Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.

Books

Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.

Music

South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.

Music

Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.

Music

'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.