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Film Review: 'Clouds of Sils Maria' - In Search of the Timeless

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Juliette Binoche (Maria Enders) in Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria.” © Carole Bethuel / CG Cinema. A Sundance Selects Release.

In Clouds of Sils Maria, Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart both give intriguing, multi-faceted performances as they play a successful actress and her personal assistant. In this movie, which was written and directed by Olivier Assayas, we watch as the two characters are swept along by the inevitable passage of time, their different ages providing each woman with her own perspective and showing how these both clash and compliment each other. Accompanying this is an in-depth exploration of the nature of relationships, highlighting the differences between a true connection and fleeting desire.

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Courtesy of CG Cinema. A Sundance Selects Release.

When world-renowned actress Maria Enders (Binoche) is asked to take on a part in the play that made her famous 20 years earlier, she is forced to confront the fact that time has passed. When she was young, she played Sigrid, a young woman who seduces her older female boss Helena. However now, Maria is asked to take on the role of Helena, which for her is an unwelcome reminder of her own aging.

Maria finds it difficult to accept this character, who she sees as being insecure and vulnerable, reflecting the way she is beginning to feel about herself. However, as her young assistant Valentine (Stewart) points out, this is simply the perspective with which she views the character. If she was able to accept the aspects of herself that are similar, then she would be able to look upon Helena positively, like Valentine does, as a woman whose innocence is her most attractive attribute. The play is about what attracts Helena and Sigrid to each other, and from Maria and Valentine’s conversations, we begin to unpick these reasons.

The women’s differences are highlighted once more during a dinner conversation where Valentine argues for the depth and merits of fantastical blockbusters, while Maria remains unconvinced, unable to read anything meaningful into a story set on a spaceship.

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Kristen Stewart (Valentine) in Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria.” © Carole Bethuel / CG Cinema. A Sundance Selects Release.

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Chloë Grace Mortez (Jo-Ann Ellis) in Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria.” © Carole Bethuel / CG Cinema. A Sundance Selects Release.

There is a lot of crossover in the movie between Maria and Valentine, and Helena and Sigrid. Maria and Valentine’s relationship is a close one, as can be expected by an actress and her PA, however there are moments when we see their closeness as something other than a professional relationship, as they laugh and joke with ease.

When Valentine helps Maria read lines, the two women begin to reflect the play’s characters, until we are not quite sure if the words they are speaking are the lines or their own. As they become more immersed in the play’s story, the separation between real life and theatre becomes blurred for them and when talking about Helena, Maria does admit that, “Time’s gone by and she can’t accept it. Me neither, I guess.”

There are various types of relationships explored in Clouds of Sils Maria through all the characters, whose dynamics present an interesting exploration of the importance of a relationship versus desire, and the difference between each. Hanns Zischler (“Flame and Citron”) and Johnny Flynn (“Lotus Eaters”) are part of this, and Chloë Grace Moretz plays Jo-Ann, the actress who will take on the role of Sigrid. Jo-Ann’s hard-headed media driven life is another thing that reminds Maria of changing times and proves alien and intimidating to her. However, this film is less about the play and more about the relationships between those involved, laying a focus on Maria and Valentine.

Set in Switzerland, the scenery quickly becomes a character in itself, with spectacular views of valleys and dramatic mountains providing the backdrop. The play Maria is rehearsing for is called Maloja Snake, named after a spectacular phenomenon that occurs in the mountains of Switzerland, when snakelike fog travels along a valley and up over the mountains. This is absolutely captivating and something that adds its own value to proceedings.

Alongside the beautiful scenery, we also have an enjoyable score, which lopes along in the background, at times coming to the fore with its expansiveness. Accompanying the Maloja Snake in one scene is Pachelbel’s Canon, which spirals onwards, reflecting the undercurrent of this film that is ingrained in the inevitability of time. Maria is caught up in this, until at the end in a conversation with a young director who doesn’t feel he fits in with this current time, she becomes timeless.

There are many layers to this movie, however what makes it so accessible is the fact that you never quite forget you’re watching Binoche, Stewart and Moretz, and you’re not meant to. This film is about Hollywood actresses, the theatre and the process of creating good art. A lot of what Stewart says, you can imagine her saying in real life, like her distaste for the paparazzi and her sense of humor comes across as very genuine, while Maria is a critically acclaimed actress who has a swathe of strong work behind her, just like Binoche.