During the Clouds of Sils Maria post-screening Q&A, Juliette Binoche pointed out, “Kristen [Stewart] just takes the text in the morning, she reads it two times and she knows it.” Binoche on the other hand, noted that she requires far more prep time. There are no biographical elements in Olivier Assayas’ latest, but there’s definitely some life imitating art (or art imitating life) going on and it adds yet another highly provocative notion to the already deftly layered and remarkably thoughtful feature.
The film kicks off with Stewart’s Valentine fielding calls while on a train making its way to Switzerland. She’s actress Maria Enders’ (Binoche) personal assistant and right now, they’ve both got a lot to deal with. In a matter of minutes of watching the two juggle calls and try to figure out what Maria should include in a speech she’s due to give for Wilhelm Melchior, the acclaimed playwright who launched her career, you get a thorough understanding of their dynamic. Stewart’s got a winning poise and confidence to her while Binoche infuses Maria with passion for her craft while also alluding to a degree of self-doubt and insecurity.
Fortunately for Maria, Valentine is in perfect sync with her and serves as the support she needs when they find out that the playwright she’s set to honor has passed away. When Maria contemplates turning around and canceling the trip, Valentine never agrees nor does she insist that Maria forge ahead and give the speech. Valentine serves as a guide by gently making suggestions and being a steadfast friend, but then letting Maria make the ultimate decision.
Soon thereafter, Maria is courted to take a role in a revival of the play that made her a star, Wilhelm’s Maloja Snake. She’s apprehensive, but eventually commits and that’s when her relationship with Valentine makes this remarkable transition that’s absolutely fascinating to follow on many levels.
Taking the role of Helena in Maloja Snake isn’t just another gig for Maria. In the original rendition, Maria portrayed Sigrid, the young woman who seduces her boss and ultimately drives her to suicide. This time around, however, she’d be playing the boss, Helena. It’s a huge opportunity and PR gold, but Maria still identifies with Sigrid and has trouble accessing the material from Helena’s perspective instead. On top of that, Maria’s also got to shake a devastating memory from her past associated with the part and deal with the fact that, by playing Helena and not Sigrid, she’s essentially affirming her place in an older generation.
What makes Clouds of Sils Maria such a remarkable achievement is how it peels back the layers of this situation. It’s Maria’s role, but she’s become so dependent on Valentine’s support that she truly can’t do it alone. But, at the same time, Valentine is approaching the character from a completely different perspective. Is it because of their age difference? Is it because Maria has a history with the material and Valentine doesn’t? Is one woman’s take closer to Wilhelm’s original intent? We don’t know for sure, but because we’ve got two enchanting and especially engaging main characters trying to figure it all out in a wildly dynamic manner, it’s never about getting a definitive who’s right, who’s wrong kind of answer. The characters are growing and their lives are changing, and Maloja Snake is just the conduit.
While Valentine is running lines with Maria, it’s not just about whether or not Maria is making progress with the character. The text they’re performing also offers additional insight into how they’re feeling themselves. And then, when they’re not working on the play and just having a drink or going on a hike, their interactions harken right back to Maloja Snake. They’re so seamlessly in tandem that you naturally start making the connection between reality and fiction without even realizing that you’re doing it. Part of the reason it’s possible to connect on such a deep, carnal level is because Binoche and Stewart both deliver flawless work. In fact, this might be Stewart’s best performance yet. She’s done sound and convincing work before, but I’ve never seen her give the audience access to a character quite like this one.
Making Clouds of Sils Maria even more of a standout is that it’s so clear that no one could have done it alone. I’d like to bet the whole thing was a strong idea on paper, but part of the reason a viewer is able to track and be part of Valentine and Maria’s relationship is because Binoche and Stewart play so well off one another. And then we’ve also got Assayas’ shot selection, which is loaded with motivated camera movements that further highlight the importance of what these characters are choosing to do. It’s an outstanding collaboration that makes you care about these women while also challenging you to the same thing that the characters are doing throughout the film, assessing the developing entertainment industry and figuring out where you fall within it.
Click here for all of our NYFF 2014 coverage. Click on the links below for our other NYFF 2014 reviews:
- Goodbye to Language
- Inherent Vice
- Maps to the Stars
- Misunderstood (Incompresa)
- Two Days, One Night