art film Chloe Moretz

Clouds of Sils Maria Review: Beauty, Horror, and Acceptance in the Same Object

Friday, May 15, 2015 Rob Samuelson

Clouds of Sils Maria

Director: Olivier Assayas
Writer: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloe Grace Moretz
Rating: Four and a half stars out of five
Available in theaters now.

Perception is slippery. Nothing lasts. Impressions change as perspectives mutate. Beauty and the search for meaning are the only things that matter, until self preservation and legacies complicate things.

These are the concerns of Clouds of Sils Maria, the latest from writer-director Olivier Assayas, a backstage drama that is more Ingmar Bergman than All About Eve. Juliette Binoche stars as Maria Enders, a film and stage star nearing her Hollywood-mandated sell-by date. She's in the middle of a divorce, about to lose her Paris apartment to her soon-to-be-ex-husband. She learns at the film's opening that her mentor, the playwright who discovered her, has died on the eve of a celebration of his life's work. Now, instead of toasting the man she loves more than just about anyone, she must eulogize him. In her mourning, she is pitched on the idea to return to the play that began her career, her dead friend's magnum opus, but this time she will play the elder character beside Chloe Grace Moretz's Jo-Ann Ellis in the ingenue part that made Maria famous. One rash agreement later and the existential crisis begins.

Maria has her assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart) beside her through all this. Valentine is a terrific substitute for a support system, an invaluable resource for deep insight into themes and character motivations when running lines with Maria. She is there to check Maria's vanity at times and to reassure her at others. She makes mistakes, and a divide grows between the women. This is not a divide inherent in their age difference, or even necessarily a sign of friendship incompatibility, but more about how circumstances affect the ways people look at the world.

Val is able to see the depth in the things Maria dismisses as silly. They see the superhero movie launching Jo-Ann into stardom and Val recognizes an inner life to Jo-Ann's character, an ability in the young actress to portray meaning and motivation, heartbreak and desperation in an outlandish setting. Maria is unimpressed, probably more than a little because she sees her vitality slipping in comparison.

This young girl is only one force shoving Maria off the stage in the film. Wherever Maria looks, there's a specter of mortality, loss of importance, a lack of a sufficient – in her mind – legacy. Jo-Ann is vibrant, brash, a wild child star, giving paparazzi the finger and being arrested for DUIs. In a world that rewards attention, Jo-Ann is the richest kid on the block and Maria has to shop at Target. In another direction is her friend's death. They may have had an age difference, but Maria is closer to his 72 than Jo-Ann's 19. In the most heart wrenching direction is Val, the trusted advisor slowly turning into a critically thinking foe, even if she is right to deny Maria her fantasies and vanity.

Val's bluntness and incisive mind push Maria to her best possible performance of this part she probably should not have taken, but their different positions in life might make it impossible to remain friends. Maria is lashing out, grappling with irrelevance, but Val is clearly a person on the rise, working this assistant job on the way toward something bigger and more influential to the entertainment world.

Where Assayas, Binoche, and Stewart pull off a trick of greatness is in how they make this all okay. There is no reason for the audience to choose sides. The film doesn't. These life changes are scary for Maria, as they are for anyone. At her heart is an attempt to create something that matters to people, an inclination for seeking beauty – hence her regular hikes through the Alps – that is more noble than selfish. Too bad her pesky humanity often gets in the way. The same goes for Val's driven striving. She is a person of vast intellect and as such should look to utilize her mind in the most satisfying ways possible. She handles herself with grace and kindness, but with the unspoken – nor should it need to be spoken – promise that this isn't her destination in life. The companionship these two share is comforting in many ways, though, and they grow codependent, at times stunting each other's greatest growth potential.

The way these actresses and their director handle this delicate back and forth is exquisite filmmaking, and the place they reach is one of hopeful closure. A cathartic, if fluid, understanding of everyone's place is reached. Beauty is found, but it's a rough beauty, one you have to squint to appreciate. It's bittersweet but right. And it's great.

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