The Windsor Film Festival began yesterday on the other side of the river from Detroit. I was pleased to be in the audience for one of the first films screened, and hope to go back to see at least 1 – 2 more before the festival concludes a week from today.
Clouds of Sils Maria introduces us to Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), an aging French actress who is invited to perform in a revival of a play she became well – known for earlier in her career. This time, Maria is slotted in to the older woman role, with a younger ingenue (Chloe Grace Moretz) taking over her lead performance. Many complications come with Maria’s agreement to perform the part: the playwright has recently died, she has to confront the memories of her previous work and the actors associated with it, and she has to re-learn the script, from a different character’s point of view, with the help of her loyal younger assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart).
I just outlined the plot, but the plot really isn’t the point of this film. It’s structured into a three act motif, with title cards delineating each section.
The film’s first third could be seen as unnecessary in retrospect, but captivates the viewer with an emphasis on dark, moody European location photography and characters moving in and out of the crowded frame. The initial sequence of Binoche and Stewart traveling on a (presumably real) European train is a masterclass on how to film in a constrained environment. Director Olivier Assayas and associates put us right there in the tight confines of the train, moving in and out of tunnels and heightening the tension as Stewart’s managerial efforts are laid out.
At least two-thirds of the film (the middle section) zeroes in on just Binoche and Stewart, residing at a remote Swiss mountain house, learning the lines for the play but also blurring the lines between reality and fantasy and the actresses’ individual careers. In a manner similar to Binoche’s earlier film Certified Copy, the film begins to surprise and delight as the viewer doesn’t know what’s “real” and what is not for the characters, or where they are going with the story.
The two actresses rise to the challenge of working together and carrying the film almost completely on their shoulders. Binoche, accustomed to the lead role both in fiction and real life, commands with an increasingly dislocated sense of reality and heightened awareness of the passage of time for someone in the acting industry. The French actress performs primarily in English for the part, but is allowed a few scenes in French with a markedly different vocal pacing and physicality.
The film deserves to be seen as a return to form or start of a new chapter for Stewart. Shedding the notorious vapidity of her Twilight role, the actress instantly commits to a serious yet relatable and believable character. In her increasing power play with Binoche over the course of the film, Stewart holds her own with integrity and surprising grace. Recalling (her personal mentor) Jodie Foster at points with her character’s level of commitment and natural relatability, Stewart is the soul of the film.
Moretz is talked about throughout the movie and finally appears late in the game. The much-in-demand actress channels some of her more TMZ-focused contemporaries in her role. Her few scenes are conveyed with unexpected ease, showing wide potential for more dramatic roles in her future.
This is easily one of the most unique films I have seen this year. Director Assayas embraces his actresses but loses focus towards the end of the film, with several overly ponderous nods to the titular clouds and a starkness that doesn’t register. The changes don’t diminish the film’s broad effect, though.
IMDB says the film isn’t slated to hit US screens until next March. Needless to say, it’s definitely worth a look. The trailer is embedded at the end of this post.
(For another and more in – depth take on Stewart’s current career, check out this piece.)