REVIEW: Clouds of Sils Maria

2 05 2015

Clouds of Sils MariaBackstage-style dramas about actresses are common enough nowadays that an elided shorthand could almost certainly be employed to convey background information about the character in the spotlight.  In “Clouds of Sils Maria,” however, writer/director feels the need to relish the viewer with a whopping 36 minutes of exposition before getting to some real forward motion.

This gesture ushers in not only an aura of tedium but also an attitude of hubris.  Juliette Binoche’s Maria Enders, a star of stage and screen resisting a natural aging into a new generation of roles, is hardly a novel creation for cinema lovers.  Heck, just four days before the premiere of “Clouds of Sils Maria” in Cannes, David Cronenberg unveiled his “Maps to the Stars” with Julianne Moore playing an actress in an almost identical career conundrum!

Assayas’ film, on the whole, most closely resembles a Cannes competition entry from the year prior, though.  Like Roman Polanski’s “Venus in Fur,” much of the action (and inaction) consists of running through lines for an upcoming production and shifting imperceptibly in and out of character.  Maria, banishing herself to a Swiss mountain home with personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart), must now get inside the headspace of the mother character in the play that made her famous for her interpretation of the daughter part.

The concept is certainly intriguing but is executed rather marginally.  Had the play “Maloja Snake” been real and not a fictional invention of Assayas, watching Maria struggle with the text might have been riveting.  Without a point of reference to the play, her verbal exercises benefit the character far more than the audience attempting to understand her.

Kristen Stewart

The text mostly serves as a means for sparking necessary but avoided conversations between Maria and Valentine, exposing rifts and tensions between the two.  The confrontations, unfortunately, never seem to propel their bizarre professional and personal relationship significantly forward or backwards – and their connection lacks sufficient oddity to observe in stagnation.

In fact, the most interesting part of their conflict comes from the metafictional undertones layered into the characters by Assayas.  It is certainly nice to see actresses reflect seriously on their work; it was something Stewart really needed to do, and the contemplation appears to be paying off.  But by making the power of “Clouds of Sils Maria” derive mostly from vague allusions to other movies, it robs this movie of individual value and a unique identity.  Relying on references seems a certain way to ensure that you will not be referenced later.  C+2stars

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