You Still Haven’t Seen ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’?

This beautiful film explores women's issues and relationships with depth and lightness, and nods to high art and popular art.

A middle-aged actress (Juliette Binoche) rehearses for a play with her young assistant (Kristen Stewart) at a gorgeous Swiss mountain retreat known for its gathering clouds in Clouds of Sils Maria (2015), one of last year’s most acclaimed films. As aesthetically beautiful in composition and movement as it is intelligent in dialogue and its layered conception of “acting”, the movie explores the women’s issues and relationships with depth and lightness, and nods to high art and popular art: all anchored in the mundane and suffused by the mysterious.

Most reviewers loved this movie. PopMatters previously reviewed the DVD release, and I’ve previously raved about it here. Yet some of you still haven’t seen it, right? Not to worry, it’s freshly out on Blu-ray from Criterion. We know it’s a great film, so all that’s left is to call attention to the extras on the disc.

Half-hour extras where the director or the actors talk about a movie are usually a must to skip, as we only hear about what a privilege it was working with all these amazing artists and the amazing crew and the amazing caterers. In this case, filmmaker Olivier Assayas has been edited to say only the most intelligent things interspersed with helpful clips.

Assayas discusses how he met Binoche when he co-wrote a film she starred in back in the ’80s, Rendez-vous (1985), and we see excellent clips. Then we are told how they worked on a film called Summer Hours (2008), again with clips. He acknowledges the influence of R.W. Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) as the inspiration of the play within the film (not All About Eve (1950), one of Fassbinder’s inspirations) and his love of Ingmar Berman’s Persona (1966), again both with clips. He mentions how he first was struck by Stewart in her brief scenes in Into the Wild (2007), this time with no clips.

The interviews of Binoche and Stewart are cleverly braided, and also packed with clips to illustrate their comments on certain scenes. They say useful things about their process; for example, Binoche likes rehearsal while Stewart avoids it. Binoche makes it clear that her character’s crisis isn’t her own. Stewart emphasizes how disorienting and quick was Assayas’ direction and lack of specificity, allowing them to discover what was in the script as they filmed it.

The best extra is Arnold Fanck’s nine-minute 1924 documentary whose clips were shown in the movie. Made prior to Fanck’s work with Leni Riefenstahl, Cloud Phenomena of Maloja consists of lyrical shots of the mountains and clouds, accompanied by a modern score that’s half-majestic, half-grating in its brass repetitions. Assayas discussed how this film was one of the elements he began with when allowing the film to germinate in his brain, because he felt the cloud shots were capturing time itself.

There’s also a trailer, and the booklet has an appreciation by American feminist film critic Molly Haskell.

RATING 9 / 10


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