Clouds of Sils Maria (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Clouds of Sils Maria (2015)

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Maria is trying to deal with a divorce, the death of an old friend, and a sudden interest to return to the play which catapulted her into stardom decades ago.  As her assistant, Valentine, works to keep Maria's life in order Maria is confronted with her age as the role which made her famous goes to a young starlet of dubious talent.  Olivier Assayas writes and directs Clouds of Sils Maria with stars Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloë Grace Moretz.

Another damn superhero movieSometimes, I watch a film and can’t help but wonder what the effect would be if someone else played a specific character. Rarer still is the film where a performer seems to so completely embody the role it’s impossible to consider anyone else taking the mantle. Then there are those roles of eerie perfection, where skill and talent make it impossible for us to think of anyone else in that role, but circumstances surrounding their life and careers outside of the film make their perfection almost inevitable. There are direct examples, such as Jean-Claude Van Damme’s sad performance in JCVD, and then there are films like Clouds of Sils Maria, whose central performance by Kristen Stewart embraces a character I feel has been waiting for her all this time.

Stewart gets little respect and regard from many cineastes because of her work in the Twilight films and reputation for being barely capable of emoting. It seems we’ve grown so accustomed to big emotions, which certainly have their place in cinema, instead of the subtle performances which luminaries like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Liv Ullman were capable of. Stewart’s role in Clouds of Sils Maria reads almost like a challenge to those who have found her too subdued in the past, because it is a role which requires subtlety and close reading to get to what makes her so spectacular.

Clouds of Sils Maria is not without its other pleasures, and I must resist the temptation to read this solely as a film about Stewart, but the truth is Stewart is merely emblematic of the larger problems writer / director Olivier Assayas illuminates. We have a nasty habit of driving actresses into despair, creating perpetual tabloid icons to love and learn lessons from with every exaggerated misstep. Assayas doesn’t plunge us into this tabloid hyperreality, though it intrudes on the plot of Clouds from time to time. Instead he looks at the momentary peace disrupted by these leeches, and the long-term effects of being someone driven into a position of disdain.

While I have heaps of praise for Stewart, Moretz is excellent in giving the audience both in-film and outside the disdain and

While I have heaps of praise for Stewart, Moretz is excellent in giving the audience the disdain and cautious fun needed to work the media machine and come out alive.

Assayas make a subtle point early on that the prestige and results Maria (Juliette Binoche), Valentine (Stewart), and Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz) are capable of will forever be deferred to another. Valentine is busy on the phone, trying to navigate a language she doesn’t speak in business deals she can barely keep up with as Maria deals with another crisis. But Maria’s crisis is less about her and more about someone else’s desires, and Maria’s entry back into the world of theater is because of the death of a colleague, not because of her talent. Jo-Ann does not seem immediately connected to these two, but Maria belittles her talent in the service of some higher ideal of art while the media constructs Jo-Ann as a social pariah.

This is a subtle battle of emotional wits between three different women who just want recognition for what they can do. Assayas stages some heartbreaking moments, such as Maria drinking alone after giving a seemingly interested man her room number. His absence is made all the more striking because he invited Maria to his home for a nightcap earlier. She wants him, but on her terms, and it’s not the absence of the pleasure they could provide each other but the pain of realizing a potential partner is not willing to work with her on her chosen level.

It gives context to Maria’s sometimes callous behavior, but not answers to why Valentine sticks around. This is where Stewart’s performance becomes absolutely crucial to Clouds of Sils Maria. Stewart never loses her cool, but always keeps her words either just ahead or just behind of Binoche’s Maria so that their emotions and thoughts are never exactly on the same level. As they argue, in what appears to be a playful fashion, Stewart allows her sentences to drift around the possibilities of life and only allows Valentine to become energized when eliminating a problem for Maria. She invites questions about just what Valentine is getting out of this relationship, especially since any opportunities for professional advancement are already plentiful for her.

Stewart is capable of so many subtle expressions I wonder if we will ever see the full range of her talent.

Stewart is capable of such complex subtlety I wonder if we will ever see the full range of her talent.

So we watch Stewart watching Binoche and quietly evaluating what happens with Moretz’s Jo-Ann. All the clues we need to Valentine’s final decisions about her life are right there in Stewart’s face. Assayas already created a world where the cruelty media inflicts on women is a constant in their lives, but with Stewart’s performance there is an observer detached enough to recognize this way of life for what it is. Perhaps the only way to stop the cruelty is to stop participating.

Assayas makes these decisions lonely and isolating. He sets us on shaky conversational ground by trapping the performers within a train at the outset. The gaze of the camera down Binoche’s dress at a celebration, or Stewart’s bare bottom after a nervous breakdown, shows just how differently a man sees a woman in performance art versus a woman realizing the toll it takes on another. This realization comes late to Maria, but for Valentine it’s the lifeline to her existence. She is an assistant, but no less a performer in Maria’s life, and as the dialogue of play and real-life twist further together until she either accepts this maelstrom of fiction or forges her own way.

In a way, Stewart winning the French César Award for Best Supporting Actress is both an ironic victory and appropriate way to cap Clouds of Sils Maria. The life we watch onscreen is not Maria’s, but Valentine’s in the service of making sense of Maria’s, and only one is still capable of forging her own path without the other. Stewart’s exposed yet cautious performance is a reminder that being the star of our own lives sometimes means disappearing from the spotlight of another.

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Tail - Clouds of Sils MariaClouds of Sils Maria (2015)

Screenplay written and directed by Olivier Assayas.
Starring Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloë Grace Moretz.

Posted by Andrew

Comments (4) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Amazing review and perspective!! I have always like the subtlety of Kristen performance. I guess because i am a sensitive person that i have no problem seeing a change in her emotion. And I do agree those people who thought she is emotionless and bland are those who are use to big reaction or big acting.

    • Thank you for the comment, and you’ve got it exactly. As a longtime fan of Nicholas Cage and Lucille Ball I love big acting in the right environments, but Stewart’s talents require a more discerning eye.

  2. Excellent perspective, one that as a Kristen’s fan, I will keep close to my heart. Thank you ever so much for this <3

    I have never had any problem seeing the emotion in Kristen's acting even during twilight (which is when I started being her fan and didn't realized until after a few year that people are hating on her and accusing her of being expressionless). I love her understatedness. She does not need to scream every emotion to catch my attention, I was fascinated the moment I look at her eyes.

    • Thank you for taking the time to comment, and I feel the same. I was able to get over some shared snobbery with her work in the Twilight films. Liked her before, especially in Adventureland and Panic Room, but the quiet shift in emotion she succeeds at so wonderfully in the Twilight films hooked me completely.

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