EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a capsule review. The full review will be released once the film hits theatres.
Clouds of Sils Maria tries to be a serious film about an aging actor reflecting on her life and career. However, its commentary about Hollywood is not very sophisticated and the parallels between fiction and reality so obvious that little of that is clever. In all honesty, Assayas’ latest is a pretty dumb soul of a movie underneath its art-house clothing.
The film opens on a train, as movie star Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) and her personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) receive news that writer/director Wilhelm Melchior has died. Many years earlier, Wilhelm directed Maria in a steamy romantic stage play called Maloja Snake, which jumpstarted her acting career. (The Maloja Snake is a long trail of clouds that snake through the peaks of the Sils Maria mountainside. Assayas returns to this picturesque footage several times during the film.)
As news of a re-staging of Maloja Snake grips Hollywood in the wake of Wilhelm’s death, Maria gets the role of Helena. In the play, Helena is a powerful woman who initiates an affair with a much younger intern, the ravishing Sigrid. Maria played Sigrid for Wilhelm when she was only 18. However, as she blusters through the play’s text with Valentine, Maria is flummoxed: Helena is just not as complex and fun to play as Sigrid.
Similar to Maria’s trouble sinking into the role of the older, more damaged and destructive woman, Binoche is also too good for this under-written character. The actress wanders around, trying to find purpose and meaning in the dialogue, just as Maria tries to bring something fresh out of this new reading of Maloja Snake. Clouds of Sils Maria’s most meta pleasure is watching Stewart, who is no stranger to tabloid fodder, play a character who skewers members of the press for their infatuation in the mundane daily lives of celebrities.
The film is mostly a two-hander between Binoche and Stewart. While Assayas restrains making their relationship too much of a mirror of the Maloja Snake storyline, he sometimes cannot resist. When Valentine does scene readings with Maria at one moment, we do not realize their dialogue comes from a source material until we see a book. One wishes the Valentine character had been more singular, less of a construct of the screenplay to be a double for Helena.
For decades, stories about faded actors trying to take one last stab at their youth are a dime-a-dozen. Clouds of Sils Maria never reaches the lofty heights of titles like All About Eve, Sunset Blvd. or Persona – all films that were more original, pointed and daring – and Assayas’ commentary about the addictive nature of celebrity and tabloid culture is hardly revelatory.
Clouds of Sils Maria desperately wants to be postmodern, but it is not witty enough to make much of an impression.
Even with excellent performances, Clouds of Sils Maria is overlong and obvious, reiterating tired points about acting, aging and identity without moving anywhere new thematically.