Clouds of Sils Maria (TIFF 2014 Review)

Dir: Olivier Assayas

Clouds of Sils Maria is the latest from French auteur Olivier Assayas (Something in the Air, Paris, je t’aime). The film finds Juliette Binoche thoroughly engaged and in top form in a layered narrative that reflects on aging, art and how the two intersect. Binoche is Maria Enders, an actress in her middle years that came to fame as the lead in a play called Maloja Snake. She was once the seductive ingénue, in the play and otherwise, and is now asked to return to the play as the older female character who is blinded by her lust.

Kristin Stewart plays Maria’s assistant Valentine, and they both retreat to picturesque Sils Maria, Switzerland to prepare for the role. The plotline of Maloja Snake is mirrored in Maria and Valentine’s interactions, and the play and these women’s lives become increasingly intertwined.  With much hinted at but not shown, answers and meaning are illusive in the film.

In addition to this narrative trickery, Assayas references both Binoche and Stewart’s real-life personas to add another meta-layer to the story as a whole. The allusions and winking references are not overwhelming, as the movie finds a groove in its middle section and shines during the many scenes of Maria and Valentine rehearsing, drinking, carousing and becoming closer. The prologue and epilogue, while less essential, lend context to these scenes and expand the world by introducing additional characters such as Chloe Grace Moretz’s Jo-Ann Ellis, a fun play on the modern Lohan-esque actress brat.

Ultimately, this female centric film is a breath of fresh air that shines much in the same way the day breaks during the well shot pastoral sequences. This tale of aging in the world of entertainment is both modern and biting, while leaving its finer intricacies as a mystery to be untangled. The parts may not add up to a cohesive whole (one such head scratching example is a sequence set to Primal Scream’s Kowalski that is visually stunning yet fails to serve the plot), but when a movie looks this good and is full of well realized performances, does it matter?

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