Day Three of the Sarasota Film Festival took me to the Regal Hollywood 20 on Main Street in Sarasota. I had a press pass ticket to Clouds of Sils Maria. Directed by Olivier Assayas, the film stars Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloë Grace Moretz. I thought it was a terrific movie.
A simple synopsis would be that this is the story of an actress, a hugely successful actress, who has been asked to revisit both a theatrical production as well as a movie that made her world-famous more than 20 years ago. When she was 18, she played the role of a young woman who dominated a woman who was more than twice her age in a lesbian relationship. Then the young woman dumped the older woman, which led to the older woman taking her own life.
That story was called Maloja Snake. And the above synopsis is an oversimplification of what will be a very complex, detailed, and riveting motion picture.
As the film opens, this older actress, Maria Enders, played by Juliette Binoche, has been called upon to accept a lifetime achievement award on behalf of the Maloja Snake play/movie’s author Wilhelm Melchior, who would not be present to accept the award himself. Onboard a train on the way to Zürich, Enders and her Personal Assistant Valentine, played by Kristen Stewart, receive word that Wilhelm has died. What was to be a celebration, would now become a memorial.
Arriving in Zürich, Enders participates in the posthumous award to Wilhelm. Valentine then asks her to take a meeting with a new young theatrical director Klaus Diesterweg, who wants to do a theatrical revival of Maloja Snake, only this time, Enders would be cast as the older woman. Enders is reluctant, but Diesterweg is persistent, and convinces her.
Enders is then asked by Wilhelm’s widow to come out to the house where she and Wilhelm lived. This is in Sils Maria, a small town in the Swiss Alps – a two-hour drive from Zürich. The widow cannot spend another moment in the house, so she offers it to Enders as a retreat to prepare for the play. At this point we learn that Wilhelm did not just die. He couldn’t accept the award because he was in the throes of an extremely debilitating and terminal disease. So he committed suicide.
Maria and Valentine spend the time hiking in the mountains, famed for the Maloja Snake, a phenomenon of a cloud that literally, at certain times of the year, under certain meteorological conditions, snakes its way between the mountains before rapidly moving through the valley.
When not out on the trails, Maria and Valentine are working on the play – they do line readings, they do simulated walk=throughs, and are in effect rehearsing. It is at this point, that the film really opens up. The Maloja Snake is a play about a relationship between an older and younger woman. And as Maria and Valentine go through it, the lines between their own real life relationship (boss and assistant) and the relationship of the characters begins to blur. In fact, there will be times, when you cannot be sure if they are using the play’s script to express their own real feelings or they are straight line readings.
But Enders claims she is strictly straight not a lesbian. Yet – there is a not so subtle attraction between them. And when Valentine takes a night off to spend it with a man, which is what she does on occasion – it seems that Maria is jealous.
We then get the entrance of Chloe Grace Moretz, a real life 17-year-old actress (at the time of the shooting), who portrays the young actress – Jo-Ann Ellis, who will play the character of Sigrid, the young woman from Maloja Snake. Now Ellis is what we might call a brat, or in a more literary term an Enfant Terrible. At least that’s how she’s portrayed on the internet and in the tabloids. We are given every indication to think of Ellis as yet another version of Lindsay Lohan, or a female Justin Bieber.
But the reality is that she is none of that. She’s bright, articulate, well-groomed, and an open admirer of Maria Enders.
So there’s your set up – Kristen Stewart as Valentine, Juliette Binoche as Maria Enders, and young Chloe Grace Moretz as Jo-Ann Ellis. Each of them gives a superlative performance. Think of the surface – an older actress, a personal assistant, and a younger actress. Enders and Ellis are called upon to star in a revival of a production that made Enders a world-class actress =- about an older woman and a younger woman.
Valentine is on hand = and for sure you will begin to see her as a real life version of Sigrid, the fictional younger woman. You will begin to see Maria Enders, as a real life embodiment of Helena, the fictional older woman.
Truly, the way Assayas has both written the screenplay and helmed the film, is breathtaking – just as is the views of the Maloja Snake clouds, and the magnificent views of the Swiss Alps. Binoche gives a standout performance as an actress who is asked to confront her past, her present, and her future all at the same time, and all from both within the play within the film, as well as her own real life story – she acted in a film called Rendez-vous in 1985. Twenty years ago.That film was written by Olivier Assayas.
Moretz herself is just 18 years old. Already she has 52 acting credits. So far she apparently has avoided becoming a darling of the gossipy tabloids, or the invasive paparazzi. And moreover, in this film, Director and Screenwriter Assayas is making his own statement about that.
As for Kristen Stewart, her biggest claim to fame is the fact that she was cast in the uber-popular Twilight series of films, as Bella Swan. Stewart has made millions from these films and has often been a Page Six presence in the tabloids. No doubt many actresses are jealous of Stewart’s successes. But forget all about that.
In my view, Kristen Stewart steals the film. She more than holds her own while occupying the screen alongside the more accomplished Binoche. Valentine is a bit messy, and wears big eyes glasses. But she’s not at all intimidated by Maria Enders’s star power. Valentine can multi-task. She works with two or is it three phones, she surfs the net effortlessly, and as a P.A., she handles everything Enders asks her to do.
Even more amazing is that beneath that professionalism, she can also be a friend (or more?) to Enders. Binoche is portraying an actress, and so her performance is broader and more outward, more theatrical as it were. She doesn’t come off as a diva, but she is a bit closer to diva-dom than not. Stewart as Valentine, gives a softer and more nuanced portrayal of the younger woman. We know, not because we are told, but because we can see it, that Valentine can be either subservient to her boss, but also can challenge her boss. Or show her anger.
Many will say that this is Stewart’s finest performance. Rather than agree with that – I can’t because I haven’t seen her before this film, I will point out that Kristen Stewart received the Cesar Award for her role as Valentine. The Cesars are the French equivalent of our own Oscars.
As for this film, it was nominated for a Cesar in the following categories – Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress (Stewart), Best Cinematography, and Best Original Screenplay. What I’ll say is this – the genre of films about actors and actresses is one that has been done many times – and often quite successfully. The classic All About Eve won SIX Oscars including Best Picture.
In fact, when I first selected this film as one I wished to cover at the SFF, I went in thinking that this would be similar or parallel to All About Eve. But that is not quite what Clouds of Sils Maria is. It is much deeper than being simply about an aging actress dealing with a younger actress.
It is more about the blurring of real life and cinematic roles. It is more about dealing with the Hollywood and international press and its offspring – the paparazzi. I see this film as the cinematic equivalent of a hall of mirrors, or like each actress is a spinning top who presents us with a different and constantly changing image from scene to scene, and within that, moment to moment.
If you think of a place, for an actor or actress, where one’s life, one’s work, and one’s roles all intersect – it would be Sils Maria.
As I said up top, I think this is a terrific film, and I will bestow a four point five rating on it. The film is currently in a limited release in the US as of April 10th, but a national rollout is to follow. Until you have the opportunity to see this very special film – check out the trailer.