MOVIE REVIEW: Clouds of Sils Maria

(Image courtesy of Alejandro Riera and the Chicago International Film Festival)


50th Chicago International Film Festival special presentation

If you dig deep enough, there is a myriad of solid examples of when an actor or actress portrays a fictional character on-screen that parallels their real-life persona.  Take Julia Roberts playing the biggest movie star in the world in "Notting Hill" or, even more recently, Michael Keaton embodying a washed-up former comic book film actor trying to regain his artistic integrity in the Oscar-winning Best Picture winner "Birdman."  Heck, plenty of people argue that Jack Nicholson plays a version of his cool and cocky self in every role.  The same can be said for Clint Eastwood as the penultimate soulful curmudgeon.  If you want to go the trippy route of blurring that line, look at John Malkovich in "Being John Malkovich" or Joaquin Phoenix in "I'm Still Here."

The most rudimentary critique that comes out of these situations is wondering how much of a stretch would it really be.  How hard could it be to go up there and just be yourself?  Shouldn't that be easier than "getting into character?"  I believe the answer to those rhetorical questions are harder than one would think.  Actors and actresses that put themselves in roles like that have to possess a confidence that outweighs their vanity.  Sure, they're showing off a little, but it's more complicated than that.  When put on display, front-and-center, with those kinds of parallel to yourself, both one's unique traits and personal flaws get exposed.  The best of you gets put out there right next to the skeletons in your closet.

The new foreign-backed "Clouds of Sils Maria" is the latest film to challenge the parallels of a performer channeling what may or not be a version of themselves.  Written and directed by Olivier Assayas ("Carlos" and "Something in the Air"), "Clouds of Sils Maria" premiered in competition at last year's Cannes Film Festival and worked the film festival circuit last winter, including stops in Toronto, New York, and the 50th Chicago International Film Festival.  The film finally makes its limited U.S. theatrical release on April 10th.

Honed down to a serious scale far smaller and more intimate than the likes of "Notting Hill," the cinematic star in the center of this solar system microcosm is Academy Award winner Juliette Binoche.  As a gracefully aging actress of peripheral prominence playing a fictional one of the same sort in a different situation, we are taken inside a phenomenal character study.  "Clouds of Sils Maria" is a fascinating actor's showcase that deserves and earns your attention for the behind-the-scenes tribulations of acting and the livelihood attached to that career. 

Binoche plays Maria Enders, a successful veteran actress who got her start decades ago as the newly discovered young starlet in stage and film adaptations of a play entitled "Maloja Snake" from playwright Wilhelm Melchior.  The play surrounds a young girl name Sigrid who's free-living ways of romantic and career competition drive an older woman named Helena to suicide.  The Sigrid role has defined Maria her entire career.  Today, she's a successful international actress in her late 40's who, like so many in her age range, are finding roles harder and fewer by the day.  Her confidence wavers greatly and her personal assistant, an American girl named Valentine (Kristen Stewart of the "Twilight" series), seems to be the only one that can hold Maria together.

When alerted to the news of Melchoir's passing on the way to an event to honor him in Zurich, the unexpected death of her mentor hits Maria hard.  While in Zurich, an aspiring young filmmaker (German actor Lars Eidinger) convinces Maria to star in a revival of "Maloja Snake" on the London stage to honor Melchior, only this time the aged Maria is cast to play the older Helena role as a homage to bringing Melchior's work full circle.  Maria's original Sigrid role is betrothed to wild American actress Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz), a young Drew Barrymore-type whose caustic personal choices and scandals garner more tabloid headlines than critical accolades.  For Ellis, starring in "Maloja Snake" in London alongside a great like Maria Enders is an attempt by her to clean up her act and show her legitimate acting aspirations.  The presence of the popular Ellis makes Enders second fiddle.  

To prepare for the upcoming role reversal, Maria isolates Valentine and herself in Melchior's rustic mountain cottage in the village of Sils Maria in Switzerland.  Alone with her grief, doubts, and neuroses, Maria becomes immersed in self-induced rehearsal.  The process becomes intense and stressful.  Maria takes out most of her frustration on Valentine as she reads Ellis's half of the play day after day.  Maria can't help feeling like this suicidal older role is indicative of her career track and place in the business.  Meanwhile, the stage play itself approaches and promises were made.

One cannot watch "Clouds of Sils Maria" without sharing that feeling that Juliette Binoche is transmitting a bit of herself to play Maria Enders.  Swinging from the uneasy and scarred private persona to the luminous public figure Maria Enders has to pretend to be, the Oscar winner puts on an acting clinic.  She deftly sheds light on the inner thoughts of a talented and flawed celebrity.  She dives us into the creative process of a veteran artist preparing and perfecting their craft.  To call her work masterful would be an understatement.  Assayas doesn't rush Binoche and she's given latitude to steer this journey.

Not many women on the planet could go toe-to-toe and blow-for-blow with someone like Juliette Binoche, but Kristen Stewart, of all people, that lip-biting terrible actress from the "Twilight" series, does.  You would think, looking at this cast, that the breakout star and revelation would be Chloe Grace Moretz.  The young "Kick-Ass" and "Hugo" star does get a plum role in a legitimate film that elevates her stock by playing something more original than "Dark Shadows," "Carrie," or "The Equalizer," but it's Stewart that shocks and amazes.  Outside of "Snow White and the Huntsman" a few years ago, Stewart has quietly gone back to smaller roles in smaller films after the tremendous overexposure she had romancing sparkling vampires.  She brings her A-game here and surprises with a poignant performance that matches Binoche's mental intensity.  I didn't know she had it in her.

With those two leads, people need to start to notice "Clouds of Sils Maria."  The cinematography used to soak in the Swiss countryside is sumptuous and the Handel-heavy classical music in the background paints another layer of imposing tone into what is already a heavy psychological character study.  Binoche is too respected and too good of an actress not to get this film to a better place on the domestic movie radar.  Kristen Stewart was recently named the Best Supporting Actress at the Cesar Awards (France's equivalent to the Academy Awards) becoming only the second American and first American woman ever to win a Cesar Award.  That's quite a feather in anyone's cap and that just might register later this year at Oscar time (and deservedly so).  For more on the female-centric dynamic behind Binoche and Stewart in "Clouds of Sils Maria" and the shades of Ingmar Bergman going on, check out this piece from The New York Times.  Seek this winner out and I think you'll be impressed.

LESSON #1: THE LASTING CONNECTION BETWEEN MENTOR AND MUSE-- Even though the deceased Wilhelm Melchior is never shown, we constantly see and feel the impact Maria's mentor had on her.  The initial Sigrid role launched her career and she never forgot that.  Her and Wilhelm become forever linked by that process.  Her experiences with Melchior and that role still resonate and those old memories bubble back up even stronger with Maria's rehearsal time in Wilhelm's old cottage for the daunting new task of playing Helena.  She still feels like a "Sigrid," but wants to honor Wilhelm's memory and influence.

LESSON #2: THE DUTIFUL ROLE OF A PERSONAL ASSISTANT-- I'm pretty sure everyone thinks it would be cool to fetch coffee for some big star, but the role of Valentine will show you that being a personal assistant for someone glamorous is not a glamorous role at all.  It is a thankless, tedious, and exhausting task of menial duties that sap a person's own drive, goals, and initiative when that energy is put into someone else that's supposed to have their own greater drive, goals, and initiative.  Valentine is Maria's conduit to the outside world and has to filter both the good and the bad for her employer.  When given more to do during this extended rehearsal and research period, Valentine begins to question just how beneficial this symbiotic business relationship really is when personal boundaries get blurred and crossed along the way.

LESSON #3: PERFORMERS BEING DEFINED BY THEIR EARLIER ROLES-- All of us represent the fickle audiences that make up the choppy waters artists and celebrities have to navigate for success.  All too often, what we first fall in love with for an actor or actress becomes our expectation out of one side of our mouth while the other side wishes they could stop doing the same thing, even if it always works.  Am I right Vince Vaughn and Adam Sandler?  As the often-used quote says: "You're only as good as your last success."  Maria feels that pressure in returning to "Maloja Snake" under different circumstances than when she started all those years ago.

LESSON #4: COMING TO GRIPS WITH AGING WITHIN YOUR PROFESSION-- This lesson connects a circle from Lesson #1.  Long ago, Maria burst onto the scene as the raw young talent that siphoned every creative angle she could from her mentor.  Now, she's a weary and tired veteran asked to switch roles and guide her contemporaries.  In many ways, Maria is not entirely comfortable with that.  She may be weary mentally, but her pride doesn't not feel old enough to be in this position.  I think all of us reach this same point as Maria in our careers and professions.  We all transition from being new and learning to learned and seasoned.  At some point, we have to face that reality that we are old and even replaceable.  We are faced with either changing with the times or letting them pass us by, even if our talent hasn't dwindled, just our birthday has.