CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA held me all the way through, impressed by the acting, the look of the film and its wonderful setting, but the dramatic storyline didn’t have the same rapturous effect it held for many. Looking at reviews for the 2014 psychological character study I find myself agreeing both with those who champion it (it was mostly highly praised), and with the minority, who felt it was superficially attractive, but overwrought and self-important. Who says you can’t have it both ways?
“You can’t get innocent twice”, frustrated middle-aged actress ‘Maria Enders’ (Juliette Binoche, 49) admonishes her equally frustrated younger assistant ‘Valentine’ (Kristen Stewart, 23), as they argue over how Maria should deal with interpreting a character in a play she’s reluctantly been coaxed into accepting. Twenty years earlier, the same property—an intense story about how a young woman takes advantage of an older one to such a degree that the infatuated older woman kills herself—had given Maria her career breakout, playing the young schemer, but now she’s playing the older victim. Cast as the girl is ‘Jo Ann Ellis’ (Chlöe Grace Moretz), an American star of sci-fi epic nonsense who is also known for public displays of her hedonistic private life. As Maria (who is simply ‘European’, not nation-specific) rehearses the dense and wracking material with Valentine (American like Jo Ann, and a fan of the new actress) the relationship between Maria and Valentine both deepens and frays as character layers and motives of all kinds, from all concerned, are peeled back.
A great line, as Maria scans an audience at a reception: “A sea of gray hair.”
Writer-director Olivier Assayas, who’d written 1985s Rendez-vous, which was a major break for the then-21-year-old Binoche, had the play within this film, ‘Maloja Snake’, riffed from The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, a 1972 feature from Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The non-theatrical—but certainly magical—Maloja Snake is a weather phenomena in the Alpine region of Sils Maria, Switzerland, where Maria and Valentine live while they’re deciding what to do about the play—and each other.
The three actresses are all quite good (we’d watch Ms. Binoche in a documentary on sawdust), with the lionesses share of critical huzzahs going to Stewart, who was seen as emerging swan-like (read ‘Bella’) from the dewy doings of her Twilight zone (she didn’t get enough credit for her excellent job as Joan Jett in the overlooked The Runaways), and she’s perfectly fine. But then, she should be: the praise went over-the-top. Actually, Moretz, while her part is much smaller, has a finer line to walk, and does it justice.
We do love the scene where Valentine is trying to get Maria to acknowledge the ‘depth’ of performance they just witnessed in a screening of Jo Ann’s sci-fi hit—Binoche’s hilarity slams a wicked home run.
The actresses are better than the extra-talky script, which reiterates points past what’s required, and Assayas, despite delving into emotion-heavy territory, has a distancing, clinical style at odds with the melodrama: cameraman Yorick le Saux is not allowed much in the way of close-ups that would help bring home the feelings the script is telling us the characters have. Still, it’s fluid and elegant (often practically a commercial for Chanel, who helped put up financing in return for product soaking). Aside from the location work in Sils Maria, other exteriors were lensed in Leipzig, Berlin, Zurich and South Tyrol. Visually—and emotionally—the highlights are the beautiful shots of the clouds doing their glorious cruise thing up the valley. Accompanied by a grand rendition of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D”, the feelings triggered by watching this captivating natural spectacle uncoil are deeper and more profound than the fleeting, ego-based human chatter.
The critical notice failed to attract sufficient box office (the material isn’t a crowd-draw to start with): the $5,100,000 cost was only grazed by an international return of $4,728,401. As such, while it was a feather in the caps of the cast, it joined a number of fine, small-scale pictures from 2014 that barely made a dent at the box-office–99 Homes, Kill The Messenger, Cake, The Good Lie, The Homesman.
124 minutes, with Johnny Flynn, Hanns Zischler, Angela Winkler and Claire Tran. Though still somewhat on the trail about this picture, we’re intrigued enough for a return hike: that may serve to clear the mist and part the clouds.