Viennale 2014 – Day 3: Clouds of Sils Maria

Clouds of Sils MariaClouds of Sils Maria
France | Switzerland | Germany 2014
Written by Olivier Assayas
Directed by Olivier Assayas

Before we get to the movie itself, let me start by saying that I don’t get all the hate towards Kirsten Stewart. There is this very popular internet meme that shows her in different emotional states, but it’s always the same picture – and I think it’s just vile, and mean – and moreover, completely false. I firmly believe that many people who do not like her as an actress only know her from the “Twilight”-movies, and even there I think that it’s more an (understandable) aversion against the role that she plays than against her performance. But could we please not transfer our disgust for the character unto the actress that had the (mis)fortune to play her? I dunno, maybe it’s because I’ve actually seen her in plenty of other roles (“Adventureland”, “Welcome to the Rileys” and “The Runaways”, to name but a few), but I don’t get why the internet keeps insisting that she’s terrible. Mind you, I wouldn’t call her the best of her generation, but she’s, at the very least, a decent actress.

I’m pointing that out mostly because I guess that for some, the fact that she appears in “Clouds of Sils Maria” could be a reason for them to skip it – which would really be a shame, because it’s a damn good movie. Its biggest strength in my opinion are the numerous meta-levels. First, you got the basic layer with Maria and the play “Maloja Snake”. Back in the day, when she was 18, she played the part of Sigrid, a young, sexy, up-and-coming assistant that ultimately drives her female boss Helena, with whom she has an affair, to suicide. Now, more than 20 years later, she’s asked to reappear in the play, but this time as Helena – a character she dislikes immensely, because she sees her as naive and weak. When the director of the play tells her that they essentially are the same character, but at different points in their life (which is why he pursues her to play Helena in the first place), it disturbs her tremendously, because of the implication that Maria herself, after being Sigrid in her youth, will now end up becoming just like Helena. The second meta-level features Maria and her assistant Valentine, whose relationship partially mirrors the one between Helena and Sigrid (even though they are not romantically involved in any way) – which makes the scenes where they are rehearsing together truly fascinating, because more often than not, the lines of the play also seem to apply to them. Thus, it’s sometimes actually not easy to tell where the rehearsal ends and their conversation starts. The final meta-level then reaches out into the real world. Obviously, Juliette Binoche finds herself at a similar place in her career as Maria. On the other hand, there’s Kirsten Stewart, which gives a speech about Jo-Ann Ellis (the character played by Chloe Grace Moretz) where it’s all-too-obvious that she’s actually talking about herself. All these different meta-levels make the movie a fascinating, multi-layered experience.

Another major strength of the movie is the great chemistry between Binoche and Stewart. I’m not sure if Kirsten Stewarts performance here will be enough to finally let the naysayers shut up, since she’s “just” good but not revelatory, but in either way, her Valentine is at least far removed from Bella Swan, which should help proof that her acting range is bigger than that stupid internet meme would make you believe. In any case, I found her to be really good (again), and thought that she gave a natural, convincing performance. Nevertheless, this is first and foremost Juliette Binoche’s movie, and, as usual, she shines in her role. Special mention must also go to Chloe Grace Moretz, who – after a misguided performance in “Carrie”, which I strongly believe was less her fault than the director’s – proves again to be a great talent worth keeping an eye on. I also really liked the insight that the movie offered into the work of actors and actresses. Despite some tragic, emotional and very dramatic scenes, “Clouds of Sils Maria” can also be very funny at times, for example with the movie that Jo-Ann Ellis stars in, and the discussion between Maria and Valentine that follows it. And there are some really beautiful, breathtaking images of the Alps, and overall, the movie is very well shot. Two things prevent this from becoming a masterpiece, though. Firstly, it’s a tad too long. And secondly, there’s a rather weird twist near the end that I guess is supposed to mirror something that happens in the play (even though if we take the play and apply it to the characters in the movie, this thing actually happens to the wrong person), which nevertheless felt extremely out of place for me. It also seemed to open the gates to interpretation hell, possibly even indicating a “Fight Club”-like twist that in this case would be completely nonsensical. Anyway, this scene really took me out of the movie, and left me confused and frustrated. Other than that, I have nothing but praise for it.


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