Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) — Image via

Clouds of Sils Maria

Directed by Olivier Assayas (2014)

Director Olivier Assayas is known for dramatically changing his style and approach from film to film, and his latest, Clouds of Sils Maria, provides no exception. While his previous effort, Something in the Air — a story about post-1968 French student radicals — seemed to privilege documentation over meaning, Sils Maria is almost deliriously overdetermined by its many potential meanings. The film is at once a richly layered meta-commentary on the art of storytelling, a meditation on the loss of youth, a glance into the particular universe of international celebrity-artist culture, and perhaps most compellingly a story about the shifting dynamics of a relationship between two women.

Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) — Image via filmsdulosange.frThe story begins on a train, which is carrying celebrated actor Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) and her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) to Zurich, where Maria is slated to accept an award on behalf of Wilhelm Melchior, author of Maloja Snake, the play that made her famous 20 years earlier. On the way, Maria learns that Wilhelm has died. In Zurich, while still processing his death, she is approached by a director, Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), who wants to mount a new production of Maloja Snake. The play (in a nod to Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant) is about the destructive sexual relationship between middle-aged business owner Helena and her young assistant Sigrid, and while Maria played Sigrid in the original production, Klaus now wants her to play Helena opposite Hollywood star Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), who is better known for her scandals than her acting. Maria initially rejects the offer, but she starts to grow more interested.

Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) — Image via filmsdulosange.frWe then move to Act II, the longest and most interesting part of the film (as well as the part that earns it an A+ on the Bechdel test). Maria has accepted the role of Helena, and Wilhelm’s widow Rosa (Angela Winkler) has invited her to prepare for the part by staying at the chalet where the play was written. Maria in turn has invited Valentine to come along to run lines with her. Over the course of the act, we watch the two women navigate the growth of a relationship in which the boundaries are not always clear, all while Maria prepares for her most challenging role and Valentine tries to assert her worth as an artistic confidant. The two become friendly, but Maria is still the boss, a position that she does not abuse but that we cannot help but feel. Valentine is not shy about sharing her thoughts about the play and about Maria’s interpretation of Helena, but Maria is no more shy about casually dismissing those thoughts, something that eventually comes to grate on Valentine. After this section of the film comes to an enigmatic conclusion, we are given a brief epilogue taking place in the lead-up to the play’s opening night.

Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) — Image via filmsdulosange.frThough Maria is the film’s protagonist and Binoche is an undeniable presence in the role, it is Valentine who emerges as Clouds of Sils Maria‘s most interesting and memorable character. In what are undoubtedly not coincidences, we see her display certain characteristics of both Helena and Sigrid, while both Maria and Jo-Ann’s backstories allude to Stewart’s own real-life persona. These connections may make Valentine seem like a sort of hybrid creation, but stepping back from all the meta-references, we can also see her as a more realistic, down-to-earth sort of young person than either Sigrid or Jo-Ann — one whose youth gives her some power, but not all the power, and whose air of confidence never fully hides her desire to earn the respect of those she respects. It’s a deceptively complex role, and Stewart nails it.

There is plenty more I could say about Clouds of Sils Maria — about its commentary on big-budget Hollywood filmmaking, or the significance of most characters’ need to communicate in English as a second language, or its somewhat odd use of music, etc. This is the sort of film that is destined to have much written about it. But at this point, I will stop and just encourage people to see it. Assayas’s film screens for a second time at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival on Apr. 15 and is slated to open theatrically in the Twin Cities soon after.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.