Title: Clouds Of Sils Maria
Director: Olivier Assayas
Major Players: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloe Grace Moretz
Out Of Five: 4.5
Sometimes it’s too easy to make an assumption about a film. Try this. A mature, highly successful actress finds herself working alongside a younger actress who will stop at nothing to promote her career. It’s All About Eve, right? It sounds like it, but it’s also one of this week’s new releases, Clouds Of Sils Maria. And don’t, whatever you do, confuse the two.
There are some similarities, but they’re essentially superficial. Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) as an actress at the peak of her powers, having made her name in a play about the relationship between an older woman and a younger one. At the time, she played the younger one, but now she’s reluctantly agreed to play the older woman in a new production, and goes to Sils Maria, along with her dedicated PA Val (Kristen Stewart), to prepare for the part. The younger woman is going to be played by Jo (Chloe Grace Moretz), a high profile, wild living actress who attracts the paparazzi like a magnet. And for Maria, it’s like looking in a mirror.
Some essential background. The play that launched Maria’s career was called Majola Snake, a phenomenon at Sils Maria in Austria, when the clouds roll in through the mountains and over the lake, looking like a curving serpent. Its author dies in the early part of the film, influencing Maria in her decision to take the role. And when she goes to Sils Maria to prepare for the part, she stays as what was his home.
The actual Majola Snake is seen as “a sign of bad weather” for the locals and it’s a sign of turbulence ahead that hangs over the film, either by implication when Val drives overnight through the clouds after seeing her boyfriend or when we actually see the Snake itself at a crucial moment in the story.
While there are some parallels with All About Eve, there’s more going on here. It’s about understanding and coming to terms with aging, communication between older and younger people and their differences in attitudes and the process of creating a character. There’s also an enigmatic quality to the film, especially when it comes to Val: she and Maria have been discussing the fate of the older woman in the play and then, without warning, the same happens to Val. Given that Maria has been so dependent on her – she does just about everything, from lighting her cigarettes to reading lines with her to map reading – you suspect she’ll fall apart without her.
The discussions between the two of them, and their difference in attitudes, are superbly scripted and acted. Maria just doesn’t get superhero movies and can’t see any merit in Jo’s performance in one of them. Val, on the other hand, sees the movie as being universal and thinks Jo is brave and brilliant. At the time, Maria clearly would never lower herself to go in for a superhero type movie – yet, later in the film, her attitudes have shifted again and she’s discussing a possible role with a young director who’s putting together exactly that sort of film.
In fact, their relationship as a whole is superbly done. Binoche is at her best as Maria, with all the insecurities that go with acting, the recognition of getting older and more. I didn’t see any of the Twilight films – thank goodness – so my first experience of Kristen Stewart was in Still Alice and I was impressed. She’s stunning here, completely at ease in front of the camera, an old head on young shoulders, seeing through all the pretence that goes with what Maria does for a living. The third main character is Chloe Grace Moretz’s Lindsay Lohan behave-a-like Jo, with a huge artificial smile and, in not much more than a handful of scenes, we see she’s the one character who comes close to the naked ambition of Anne Baxter’s Eve, using anything and everybody to get where she wants to be.
This is an actors’ film and a film that’s all about the actors and is clearly made by somebody who likes them and understands them, something of a rarity in movies about the profession which tends to satirise them.
While much of the film would work fine on a smaller screen, it really needs a cinema to appreciate the wonderful mountain scenery, especially in the sunshine of the second half and the rolling clouds of The Snake itself. We also see some old, black and white film of the phenomenon and then a contemporary one as a parallel later on – and they’re both utterly beautiful.
At two hours, The Clouds Of Sils Maria is long and there are moments when you feel the director is just taking a touch too much time to tell his story. But it’s a minor flaw, particularly in the context of such wonderful camerawork and staggeringly good acting. Just carve out the time to watch it – preferably on the big screen – and immerse yourself. You won’t look at your watch once.
Clouds Of Sils Maria is released on Friday, 15 May.