A veteran actress comes face-to-face with an uncomfortable reflection of herself when she agrees to take part in a revival of the play that launched her career 20 years earlier.
‘Clouds of Sils Maria’ is an intriguing psychological drama focusing on an international film star who returns to the role that made her famous many years down the line. Set in the luscious atmosphere of the Swiss Alps, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) begins the film by travelling to Zurich to accept a reward on the behalf of Wilhelm Melchior, a playwright who cast her in both the film and play versions of ‘Maloja Snake’. ‘Maloja Snake’ centres on a relationship between a carefree young girl, Sigrid, and her vulnerable mentor, Helena, who is eventually driven to suicide. On arrival in Zurich, Maria is struck by two events; the sudden death of Melchior, and the approach from a renowned theatre director to return to ‘Maloja Snake’, but this time in the role of the older woman. Travelling with her loyal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), Maria retreats to Melchior’s house in Sils Maria to prepare for the part.
The film is primarily interested in the themes of ageing, particularly in terms of how the film and theatre industry treats older women, and it focuses on the psychological effect taking the older role of Helena has on Maria. As her first major role, Maria associates herself so firmly with the character of Sigrid, and she initially struggles to get into the headspace of Helena, not helped by the circumstances surrounding the actress who played that role opposite her many years ago. Once the narrative retreats to Sils Maria, the film really starts to come alive as Olivier Assayas draws clever parallels between the fictional relationship of Sigrid and Helena, and that of Maria and Valentine, with several role playing conversations framed so the audience can’t initially tells if it’s real or part of the preparation.
The film is a strong showcase for both it’s female stars, with Kristen Stewart’s laid back performance a particular joy from an actress really starting to show her talent (see ‘Still Alice’ from this year as well) after being stuck with the ‘Twilight‘ series for so long (see Robert Pattinson’s improving performances too). Stewart and Binoche have a strong rapport and their scenes are the most enjoyable in the film, which does mean the introduction of Chloe Grace Moretz as the ‘new’ Sigrid falls a little flat in comparison as it takes away from their two-hander. Grace Moretz plays Jo-Ann, a troublesome young Hollywood starlet pitched somewhere around Lindsay Lohan’s wavelength, and her performance helps to enhance Maria’s doubts and fears about taking on the role.
‘Clouds of Sils Maria’ is an intelligent and complex drama that handles its lofty themes with an impressive script and a trio of outstanding lead performances from its female stars.
Directed By: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloe Grace Moretz, Johnny Flynn, Angela Winkler, Brady Corbet, Hanns Zischler and Lars Eidinger