Clouds of Sils Maria is not the first film to comment on movies, theater, or the state of the entertainment industry, but I’m hard pressed to think of one that comes as ethereal as this film. There’s a breezy feeling that flows through the film, very much mimicking the cloud formation that winds through the mountain pass near where Maria (Juliette Binoche) and Valentine (Kristen Stewart) are staying. That kind of lightness and ease of movement really carries you past some script miscues and tonal shifts to make Clouds of Sils Maria an enjoyable experience.
When the film starts we meet Maria Enders and her assistant Valentine on the way to Zurich to accept an award on behalf of Wilhelm Melchior, the man who cast her in the play that launched her into stardom. It’s a tough time for Maria, she’s being courted to do another X-Men film, she’s divorcing her husband, and while on the train, Melchior dies. Upon arrival in Zurich she finds herself approached by popular theater director to appear in the play Maloja Snake, this time in the role of the wonder woman. Galvanized by Melchior’s death and the encouragement of Valetine, she decides to do it. In order to do it, the two retreat to Melchior’s home where the lines between the play and real life begin to blend.
Whatever positives there are to say about this movie must start with the luminous Juliette Binoche. This movie could have easily fallen apart if not for the enduring awesomeness of Binoche. The camera has always loved her, but in this film she practically glows. The script hands her a lot of good material that often references things in her life or comments on where she’s at in her career, and Binoche wise navigates the waters between the personal and the performance. Helping her deliver such an outstanding performance is Kristen Stewart, whose naturalistic performance must be lauded. Stewart seems to be one of those actors who excels when given roles that simple require being present in the moment and hew more modern. She’s always had an abundance of talent, but this movie feels like a step towards more mature roles where she can simply be in a character, rather than having to use specific acting methods or gestures.
These two women, well everyone in the cast really, excel not just on ability, but on a deftly written script. Clouds of Sils Maria could have easily devolved into a series of winks and nods at the movie industry and the actress’ careers. Luckily for viewers, writer/director Oliver Assayas knows just how far to go and just when to pull back. It’s just as thrilling watching Stewart talk about an actress starring in a critically reviled big budget film with such energy and life as it is to see Binoche’s Maria struggle to come to grips with the role she’s decided to take. Where the movie begins to stumble is when it introduces that vapid character played by Chloe Grace Moretz, whose energy is just off enough to almost trip the film up. There’s also the matter of how Assayas choses to divide his scenes. While the film does mimic a stage play (it has 2 parts and an epilogue) the fade to black after each scene really robs the film of its momentum and almost undoes Kristen Stewart’s impact. However, Stewart and Binoche are on another plane that you don’t mind the detours and missteps the film might take.