CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA – The Review
The “metacinema” is a small but ever-present category of films that span all genres, typically are of a smaller, art house or independent scale of production and typically are also hit or miss. Metacinema, for the sake of this review, is loosely defined as a film presented as a story about its own production. These films, albeit possible, are usually not documentary, but are presented in a way that can seem based in non-fiction. For this reason, some viewers find them confusing or distracting. Some of these films are rather pretentious, while others are quite groundbreaking.
CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA falls somewhere safely between pretentious and groundbreaking on the scale of successful metacinema filmmaking. Truth be told, this is not actually a true example of metacinema, as its not a film about its own production. However, it is a film about an actress preparing for a major role in a play and the insecurities she has in connection with the play, her career and her stage in life.
Juliette Binoche plays Maria Enders, a popular but aging actress who must face an uncomfortable reflection of herself when she reluctantly agrees to taking part in a revival of the play that kick started her career 20 years prior. In the revival, however, she plays an older character, while a much younger rising actress named Jo-Ann Ellis (played by Chloe Grace Moretz) takes on the role Maria played 20 years ago. Struggling to connect with her current role and still emotionally attached to her original role, Maria must face the young actress and herself and embrace her place in time.
CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA is set within the Swiss Alps as she and Valentine, her personal assistant, travel by train to attend a tribute to the playwright and director that gave Maria her break, only to have tragedy strike and alter their plans. Having made the journey into the mountains, Maria and Valentine decide to make the most of it and prepare for her role. What ensues is a rather surreal, often uncomfortable blending and blurring of reality and rehearsed performance that juxtaposes the two throughout the two women’s time in the mountains.
Valentine, played by Kristen Stewart, provides a sort of balancing reality check for Maria, who is far too caught up in her own drama to focus herself on the role. Maria needs Valentine, not only to organize and plan her daily life, but also to challenge and force her to delve into her role, no matter how it makes her feel. Stewart gives a surprisingly deft and articulate performance, carrying much of the philosophical workload for the film. Stewart trademark persona is still present, but it takes a backseat to the script’s strengths and to her veteran co-star who outshines her, despite Stewart’s commendable portrayal.
CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA is written and directed by Oliver Assayas. As is typical of his past work, Assayas still proves to be a writer filling the role of a filmmaker, delivering though-provoking stories with strong characters. Aside from the most obvious dilemma of dealing with one’s own aging and sense of losing relevance, some other smaller but related themes pop up as well. There is a thread of generational and cultural gaps that runs through the film, represented by Maria and Valentine. One of my favorite scenes occurs when the two are having drinks together and discuss a new big budget superhero science-fiction blockbuster in the works and their difference of opinions on the topic. Valentine thoughtfully supports and defends the underlying nature of the genre and its themes while Maria can only laugh and mock the over-the-top, often cheesy superficial appearance of the genre, which she clearly discredits.
Continuing this string of underlying subsurface themes, Maria gradually proves herself to be the quintessential self-indulgent elitist, the type who is concerns with herself and her own life before all else. Manners and compassion for other matter only when convenient for her, but these less desirable traits are subtle and not forthright enough to make her a villain, only occasionally uneasy to like. On the other hand, there are moments when the generational and cultural gap present themselves in reality as well as fiction. For example, when Maria and Valentine take a dip in a lake amongst the mountains, its the aging, not as fit as she once was Binoche that strips down to her full birthday suit, whereas the younger and still more conventionally desirable Stewart who chooses to swim in her panties and bra. This is not to say she should have stripped down as well, but what does this say about the generational and cultural difference in how we see ourselves? I do not believe this was a choice by the character, but rather by the actors.
CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA ultimately proves to be an interesting, if somewhat uneven character study that occasionally gets lost within itself. Accompanied by a score that is curiously engaging and eclectic and some immensely beautiful scenic landscapes, the film is certainly not a disappointment, but also does not quite live up to its own potential.