Wednesday, April 06, 2016


How did I miss the boat on Clouds of Sils Maria (2015) so completely last year? I suppose I liked it well enough when I first saw it, but I also remember feeling impatient with it, dare I say slightly bored, and I never connected with it emotionally. That detachment extended to the rapturous praise I heard coming from most of the smart, articulate people I knew who loved it-- what they said made sense, but it didn't resonate with my experience of the film. My admiration for Clouds remained largely intellectual, and I certainly didn’t rank it among the best of the films of Olivier Assayas that I’ve seen—to my mind it was no Summer Hours, or Irma Vep, or Carlos, or even Demonlover.

So here I am, head in hands after having seen it a second time, disbelieving that I was so blocked off from this movie as to not key into the magnificently understated, exquisitely played push-pull between Juliette Binoche’s aging actress and Kristen Stewart, never better, more empathetic, more sensitive, as her personal assistant. Stewart, following Binoche on a European swing to pay tribute to, and then unexpectedly eulogize the playwright who wrote her first major part, becomes increasing impatient with her boss’s reluctance to understand and accept the new role she has just agreed to play. Against her instincts, Binoche has been cajoled into revisiting that first great stage triumph, only this time playing the older, “defeated” woman in an office-bound tragedy instead of the ingénue role, that of a determined woman whose romantic rejection drives her boss/lover to suicide, the role that brought Binoche to stardom.

The melodrama of the play’s situation is contrasted with the relationship between Binoche and Stewart, but as potentially trite as that paralleling sounds, the scenes of these two seemingly disparate actresses running lines from the play, in which the borders between reality and artifice, acted emotion and real emotion, objective truth and subjective fear are so delicately blurred that we remain exquisitely off-balance, are modulated with such surety that we’re never sure which character, written or flesh, is speaking at any given time. 

Matters are complicated when we meet Chloe Grace Moretz as the Lindsay Lohan-esque Hollywood starlet who is to assume the role that made Binoche famous. Moretz tilts the balance between actresses from emotional investment to a detached willingness to get dirty at play in the fields of Internet scandal, and her Eve Harrington moment, as understated as anything that transpired between Binoche and Stewart, is even more chilling for its clinical deposing of Binoche with a smile, and in her mentor’s preferred milieu, the glassy confines of the play’s London set.

Writer-director Olivier Assayas is so confident that he constructs his lovely, emotionally challenging narrative around a metaphor that remains opaque-- the Maloja snake, a drift of clouds that moves through the valleys of a section of the Swiss Alps like an untouchable serpent, which is never assigned definition beyond that of its status of a natural warning of bad weather to come, despite the mystical visual beauty with which it permeates the dramatic essence of the director’s approach. One of the most haunting images of abandonment I can think of is the moment when Binoche, with Stewart trailing close behind, descends into a small valley on the way to witness the formation of the Maloja snake at the culmination of an early morning hike. Assayas and his cinematographer, Yorick Le Saux, shoot the two women’s approach head on, with a long lens, so that when they disappear from our view they seem to have been absorbed into the landscape of the mountain itself. After a moment we see Binoche appear over the rise and pass by the camera, which lingers, waiting for her companion who, before the image cuts away, never appears. It takes Binoche several moments, chattering about the nascent formation of the snake she sees before her, to realize that suddenly she’s alone.

Clouds of Sils Maria is a gorgeous movie, awash in sadness and insecurity and the fear that accompanies subsuming one’s own personality to that of an author’s imagination, and it represents this filmmaker at his peak. Shame on me for not recognizing it more the first time around.


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