It is no surprise that the film Clouds of Sils Maria (opening today) has gained international recognition, having been nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and having been nominated for five Cesar Awards (France’s version of the Oscars), including a win for Best Supporting Actress (Kristen Stewart, more on her in a minute). It is powerful movie-making boiled down to its barest essentials: A great script matched with equally strong performances. It’s a fantastic alternative this weekend if tent-pole, blockbuster super-hero movies aren’t necessarily your bag.
The story begins on a bouncy train, with veteran actress Maria (Juliette Binoche) and her personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) on their way to a banquet to honor a close friend and famous director. In these first few moments, through a glimpse here and a word there, we see that the two women have been working together for quite some time. As Maria struggles to find the words to describe the director who gave her her first major role (she is to speak about him at the event), Valentine receives shocking news: The man has just been found dead.
But the story is not about this death, or Maria’s relationship with him. Instead, Maria finds parallels in her own life with the original play that made her famous. It was a story of love between two women, where Maria had originally played the younger woman. Now in the twilight of her career, she is approached by an up-and-coming new director to star in a re-make of the play…but this time with Maria cast as the older woman, opposite a Lindsey Lohan-esque young actress (Chloe Grace Moretz) who will play Maria’s original role.
The movie though, is mainly seen through the eyes of Valentine. Kristen Stewart is clearly trying to show her range and her career intentions with her film choices as of late, as she tries to get out from underneath the shadow of her character, Bella, in the mega-successful Twilight series. She is succeeding and then some. Stewart’s personal life mirrors some aspects of some characters in Clouds of Sils Maria, but in Valentine, she creates a mesmerizing character with a seemingly effortless performance. Her award win was well-deserved.
The script toys with deep ironies between Maria and Valentine, and the two characters in the play. Since Maria is very hesitant to take on her new role, much of the film has Maria and Valentine bouncing lines from the play off one another, in an effort to find the character. But much of the dialogue applies directly to them in their real lives. At times, we aren’t sure if we’re hearing them read lines of other characters, or if they are speaking for themselves.
This is a talky film with a care-free, drifty tone, made compelling by the strength of the writing and the performances. It’s also a pretty revealing inside look into the life of a star. It subtly tackles issues of aging, fame, friendship and the complexities of assumption. Take for example, a conversation Valentine and Maria have one night, where Valentine is pressing Maria about if she once loved a fellow co-star. Maria gets mad at her for over-simplifying the situation. Yet Maria has no problem over-simplifying her new co-star after Googling her and finding out about her off-camera problems.
For the cleverness of the conversations we witness, the film doesn’t really seem to pay-off when it arrives it its somewhat open-aired conclusion. But Stewart and Binoche are so great here, they are characters you won’t mind having spent a few hours with. Clouds of Sils Maria may have dissipated to quickly, but there was no sense that it lingered too long.
Run Time: 2 hours 4 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloe Grace Moretz, Angela Winkler
Written and Directed by Olivier Assayas (Something in the Air, Summer Hours, Boarding Gate)
Opens locally on Friday, May 1, 2015 (check for show times).