When I saw the ambiguously titled The Clouds of Sils Maria last fall at the Chicago International Film Festival, one thought rang in my brain on the chilly walk home. Twilight star Kristen Stewart is amazing in this movie, the kind of career-swinging role that, if seen by the right people, can transform a low-tier teen celebrity into an A-list actress. Without resorting to a showy in-your-face role full of hysterics — crying, yelling, screaming, fighting (ala Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook) — she performs a straightforward character straightforwardly, which makes it all the more impressive, eye-catching even, that her performance is sensational. She injects a subtle wit into the character beyond what most actresses her age could conceive of, an underlying emotional furnace that naturally warms to the surface instead of through hotheaded contrivance. So it came as no surprise to anyone who saw Maria on the festival circuit last year that she went on to win best supporting actress at the César Awards (The French equivalent of the Oscars. It received 6 nominations, including film, director, and actress), the first American ever to do so in the entire history of the ceremony. She’s an early possibility for best supporting actress at the 2016 Oscars. Honestly, I hope she wins.
That Stewart’s real life embodies the mediation between an actress, an artist, a starlet, a celebrity, is wholly appropriate. It happens to be Maria’s own subject of study, which throws two actresses (and a wide-eyed assistant, Stewart’s character) into the revealing ring of psychodrama. Like Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, Hollywood, celebrity, commerce, and the boundaries between art and the artist are all put under a hazy microscope, with most of the running time behaving like a chamber drama on the go. If lengthy dialogue scenes aren’t your thing, I say skip it. Most of the film sees Juliette Binoche’s character of an aging actress engaging in emotional, verbal, and intellectual sparring with Stewart’s loyal assistant (and ever in the literal and figurative shadow of Binoche’s character, Maria Enders). With them is Chloe Grace Moretz playing a volatile, mouthy starlet on the rise, fresh out of rehab and with a new “Mutant” sci-fi B-picture hitting cinemas. Stewart’s character, Valentine, worships the energy and audacity of Moretz’s Jo-Ann Ellis, while Enders sees Ellis as a smug and capable but ultimately unproven talent. The three of them are fantastic in their roles. This may be expected of Binoche, but Moretz duly impresses.
Arthouse favorite, writer-director Olivier Assayas personifies a binary between youth and aging through a trio of female characters, making this the rare film — even for the dignified cinema that is found in France — where none of the primary leads are men. The three encircle a play (and film adaptation) named Maloja Snake by the great Wilhelm Melchior. Enders is going through a divorce and eager to get away from green screen Hollywood movies and reluctantly agrees to sign on to an updated version of the play by a hot theatre director. Jo-Ann Ellis is to play the character Maria played many years prior with Maria playing the role opposite. In Maloja Snake, an aging actress falls in love with her assistant, which ends bitterly and badly for the older character.
Art becomes the device of discourse between Valentine and Maria, emotional and otherwise, facilitating a way to express their disparaging viewpoints. They explain themselves through diverging takes on movies they watch together and more chiefly through work, reading lines on the Maloja Snake. Valentine fears her own unsophistication to discuss a celebrated and complex text with a great actress, who, in turn, is threatened by the play’s themes and how she now sympathizes more with a character she hates than the character she wishes she was. Tolstoy’s theory of art was art as communication, and Assayas beautiful exemplifies the idea.
A pervasive dream logic governs passages of motion and travel (that slowly engulfs the film itself). Valentine navigates a serpentine mountain road consumed with mist to the point that safe travel is impossible. Suddenly, loud, abrasive music swells into the soundmix and Stewart’s face is consumed with the crisscrossing of blurred branches. Then, between her face and the trees, like the bottom side of a triangle photo collage, is the twisting, winding road. Speeding by with distracting velocity. Valentine gets out of the car and pukes; she’s sick, but there’s something off. Assayas has weaponized the editing device of the dissolve, a common technique of gradually phasing one image out as another image phases in so temporarily they overlap. Instead of fading in and out quickly, the dissolves are unusually long and in-step with the nightmarish images, embodying the theme of splintered thoughts and inner turmoil. Whose turmoil that is Assayas leaves to the viewer, but the startling sequence is the film’s only skeleton key.
Maria is a seduction. It beguiles the audience with an ethereal atmosphere, ghostly widescreen photography that features mountains swallowed up in mist, and a possibly lesbianonic attraction between Ellis and Valentine, played by two stars at the peak of their acting powers. The sexual tension between Stewart and Binoche never reaches the explosive erotic chemistry of Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, a clear influence in more ways than one. Both films employ doppelgangers as a sort of shorthand, using doubles to highlight symmetry as well as contrast. Persona dares to break the fourth wall more than once, and while The Clouds of Sils Maria doesn’t make the same leap, a similar playfulness with the realism of the reality creeps in and out, like menacing whispers that sometimes suggest you’re going insane.
Hints of death, dying, and what comes after are hinted early. When discussing the passing of her former director and friend, Maria describes William Melchior as a peaceful ghost. Quickly they laugh at the inaccuracy of the adjective peaceful, for the director was known as a menacing cynic. Maria didn’t hit me all at once. When I saw it at CIFF last fall it had impressed me without leaving a considerable mark. But I found its wistful tone, like the death of Melchior did to Maria, had haunted me, and, unexpectedly, I was excited to see it again. I’m glad I have. It may have been many months, but the strange space this triad of women inhabit within Maria’s two hour running time has only grown in my mind, instead of shrunk as so many films sadly do.
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