Thursday, January 28, 2021

Review - Clouds of Sils Maria

 January 28, 2021

 Clouds of Sils Maria – France, 2014

With all respect to Shakespeare, there are four stages in the life of the average actor. In their youth, they are adorable and spunky, capable of melting the hardest hearts, as well as dispensing unexpectedly hilarious one-liners that display a wisdom beyond their years. In their late teens and early twenties, they are often the epitome of both young love and independence, characters in search of happily-ever-after but on terms that recognize their individuality while simultaneously allowing them to pursue their own dreams. The next stage typically sees a sharp decline in the number of lead romantic roles and a rise in ones associated with parenthood. Rarely do movies focus solely on their romantic exploits, unless they diverge from what society typically thinks of as a normal relationship, such as one involving an affair or devolving into desperation or dependence. Finally, if they are fortunate, they may find themselves cast in the role of grandparents and called upon to dispense timely advice to their much younger leads. Their stars long faded, they are a reminder of the impermanence of fame and status, a notice  that all of us are destined to be replaced by someone younger, wittier, and better looking. Juliette Binoche’s character in Oliver Assayas’s 2014 film Clouds of Sils Maria is in the third stage, even though she had yet to fully accept it.
Binoche plays Maria Enders, a woman whose Hollywood career began at the age of 18 and who has been a permanent fixture on both stage and screen in the ensuing years. As the film begins, she is on her way to the Alps to accept an award on behalf of the elusive director that gave her her first big break. At the same time, she is entertaining an offer to appear in a play detailing the tragic romance of a twenty-year-old and a woman of forty. The play would be a reprisal of sorts; twenty years ago, she played the younger role; this time, she is being asked to try her hand at portraying the older one. The director’s reasoning is sound, but it comes as a jolt nonetheless.
On the journey with her is her personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), whose job it is to keep track of Maria’s schedule, run lines with her, and help her get through occasional bouts of low self-confidence. For every scene that indicates that a real friendship exists between the two of them, there’s another one that hints at a level of dissatisfaction in having to be both friend and employee and a confusion over just where the line between those two roles is. For example, if your boss asks you how your date went, is she asking as a friend who has your best interests in mind or as an employer concerned about the effects of a new relationship of your ability to do your job? In one scene, Maria actually complains that Valentine does not share enough of her private life with her, and Valentine is not exactly sure how to respond.
As much as the film is about Maria finding her way as an older actress, it is also about her coping with a changing Hollywood. Chloe Grace Moretz makes a memorable appearance as Maria’s co-star, Jo Ann Ellis, a troubled star with a penchant for getting into legal trouble and whose moral compass does not see having an affair with a married man as problematic. In comparing the two, we see the difference between the Hollywood of yesteryear, which fretted to no end over even the faintest whiff of controversy, and the profit-obsessed conglomerate it is today, an industry that actually pays a star more if they have a greater following on the internet, regardless of the reasons for that following. In the old days, an actress like Jo Ann would have been seen as unreliable or an insurance risk. Now, that very unreliability is seen as a sign of her independence and thought to increase her box office clout. In other words, she’s a risk worth taking.
The film is divided into three parts, and I personally found the first two the most involving. As a critic and teacher, I found Maria’s conversations with Valentine about the complexity of mutant characters fascinating, though they may have resonated more twenty years ago when A-list celebrities were still shunning superhero roles for not being real acting. Since the last nineties, Shakespearean actors like Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart have been portraying classic characters from the X-Men series, and many of them have spoken about the deep complexity of their characters and the challenges they faced in playing them, so when Maria laughs derisively at Valentine for speaking earnestly about the depths of such characters, it didn’t resonate as much as it probably should have.
The film works best as a look at the kind of complicated relationship that can exist between employer and personal assistant. I imagine most personal assistants spend far more time with their bosses than their families do, and as such, their relationship can be complicated. Add to that the age difference that usually exists, and you’ve got the makings of either exploitation or a new newfound awareness of life’s multiplicity – sometimes both. The film gets this, and whenever Maria and Valentine engage in one of their long conversations – even when they’re just rehearsing – the film is a thing of beauty.
Alas, the end of that storyline is a disappointment, having more to do with cinematic concepts of symbolism and foreshadowing than realism. That casts an unfortunate pall over the third act, and its attempts to fully convey Maria’s growth and her newfound acceptance of the changing theatrical landscape are only marginally successful. Interestingly, the film seems to be advising people like Maria simply to accept their fate. Time, it seems to be echoing, has displaced them, and they should be fortunate to be hanging from wires in front of green screens pretending to shoot lasers out of their hands. There’s even a moment towards the end when Maria wonders whether Jo Ann wouldn’t be a better fit for role than her. Sure, this seems natural based on what has come before, but it is also a bit of a cop out. What ever happened to going out swinging? (on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection)
3 stars
*Clouds of Sils Maria is in English, French, and German with English subtitles.

No comments: