Dr. Donna Copeland’s


 This film is as elegantly composed as the music in the soundtrack (Handel, Pachelbel, Albarti) and the camera work of Yorick Le Saux.  It deals with the human experience of time, illusion, and change.  Maria (Juliette Binoche) is an older actress who made a name for herself in the role of Sigrid, a character by which she still defines herself.  The character was young, feisty and self-confident and played opposite Helene, an older, domineering female boss who falls in love with her assistant and falls prey to her manipulations.  Now, Maria is being pursued by a director who wants to revive the film “Maloja Snake” on stage, and he would like for her to play the role of Helene.  Maria is struggling in her personal life and as an actress with the business of aging, so resists at first, then relents, telling herself she does it out of an obligation to honor the memory of the first director whom she reveres.  (That director is no longer alive.)  The fact that the actress who played Helene in the first production died soon after the film was completed spooks Maria as well.

 Clouds of Sils Maria reminds me of the current film, Birdman, in blurring the boundaries between the characters and the actors.  The older woman/younger woman relationship in the film/play the characters are working on, is parallel to that of Maria and her younger assistant, suggesting that Olivier Assayas, writer/director, would like for us to see the universality of the issues and conflicts.  (Although the main characters are women, it may be that Assayas does not intend the audience to think the relationships in the film are gender specific.)  The new director even argues with Maria about the characters, emphasizing that they are both the same woman; it’s just a difference in time and perspective.  Maria’s assistant, Val (Kristen Stewart) helps Maria practice her lines, and they are very close, spending most of their time together.  At times, it’s not clear if their conversations are from the script or the parallel processes are going on between Maria herself and Val.  Val does complain now and then that Maria does not take her seriously or respect her opinion.  She has to bite her tongue and rolls her eyes when Maria is being obstinate or is unaware/oblivious to the contemporary world.

 When Maria is introduced to Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz), the ingénue who will be Sigrid in the new production, she has already formed an opinion about her based on the “gossip” Val relates to her from the tabloids.  Jo-Ann’s acting out has provided plenty of fodder for the media, and she is constantly fleeing from the paparazzi.  Maria takes a condescending attitude toward her, but when she is actually in her presence, she is impressed with her maturity and commitment to acting.  It does take Val to point out to Maria that she was primarily swayed by Jo-Ann’s flattery.

 Clouds extends beyond the commentary about Maria’s relationships to the profession of acting, to Hollywood specifically, and to the media’s role in making/breaking potential stardom.  The three actresses give outstanding performances, which is especially noteworthy for Stewart; this is probably the best in her career.  Assayas demonstrates that he has an astute understanding of women, human nature, and the arts.  

 The film is in the European style of giving nature a meaningful place in the drama, slow panning of the breathtaking landscape in the French Alps, extended conversations, and deliberate pace.  In that vein, it is interesting to learn that “Maloja Snake”, the name of the proposed play, refers to a weather phenomenon in Italy’s Engadin Valley, in which heavy mists descend upon, then “snake” through the mountain passes, portending that something bad is about to happen.  The descriptions about it suggest that it is a metaphor for the happenings in the film.

A complex work of art with astute observations of human nature and contemporary Western culture.

Grade:  A-

By Donna R. Copeland



International director Olivier Assayas (Paris, je t’aime) has written and directed a fascinating narrative portrait of an international film and theatre actress struggling with age and relevancy in the fast-paced evolving world.  When I first saw the cast list, it appeared very strange to me; however, there is brilliance in this casting, and both Binoche (Words & Pictures, The English Patient) and Stewart (Camp X-Ray, Twilight) give some of the better performances of their careers.  Filmed almost entirely in Switzerland, the beautiful cinematography, the fables of the snake clouds, and Assayas’s choice in the editing room to allow this film to unfold as unpredictably as the “Maloja Snake” captivated me from beginning to end.

Maria Enders (Binoche) has been acting since she was 18 years old and cast in famous playwright Wilhelm Melchior’s seductive play and eventual film, “Maloja Snake”,  about a young girl who seduces an older Lesbian.  Maria has sustained her career and energy into her 40’s, even dabbling in big Hollywood comic book films.  Now, with her close personal assistant Valentine (Stewart) in tow, they are headed to Zurich to accept an award on behalf of Melchior; word of his death reaches them before they arrive.  The reclusive director had written a revision of his famous play, with Maria in mind to now play the older part.  She struggles deeply with letting go of the young vibrant character she built a career on and accepting that she is now the older part of the story.

The film opens on the train as cell phones and Blackberries chirp and vibrate.  It’s the behind-the-scenes life of a famous celebrity.  The motion of the train, mixed with the various narratives and players flying around—divorce lawyers, agents, news of the director’s death—it quickly thrusts the viewer into the actual life of someone like Maria Enders.  Stewart, who should have lots of first-hand experience as a personal assistant really loses herself in this part.  There are no unconsciously uncomfortable faces that I have accused her of in the past; her character is sloppy, but in control; she knows exactly what her boss wants and needs, usually before she does.  In almost every scene Stewart commands control; it’s a type of control I haven’t seen the actress play before, and it’s the performance of her career.

The type of exposition Assayas uses between Maria and Valentine, the script and Maria, the script and Valentine, is complex.  There are so many levels of framing within the story that sometimes even Maria seems to be confused about when she is playing herself or a character; and perhaps they are interchangeable.  It’s almost hysterical seeing Binoche (who has never in real life been this type of self-aware persona) wear large sunglasses inside a hotel room and fuss about her importance; she is brilliant in every scene.  I couldn’t help but see Clouds of Sils Maria in comparison with some sort of gender-flipped Birdman.  Both are films about actors struggling to regain whatever it is they lost in their prime.  Whereas both seem interested in American celebrity culture, they have foreign directors and entirely different energy.  Yet, both are equally fascinating from their varying perspectives.

 Final Thought – It’s Birdman, with females in the lead, a French director, and played out in the world rather than confined to a stage.

Grade B+

By: Dustin Chase