NYFF 2014: Clouds of Sils Maria (2014); directed by Olivier Assayas

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The buzz for Olivier Assayas’ latest film was deafening; it made it difficult to avoid not only spoilers, but a glut of opinions that may somehow color my own. (The same thing just happened with the Inherent Vice premiere that just happened at NYFF. I had to get off Twitter to avoid the chatter. Even casual chatter can seep into your brain. I prefer to come into things fresh. I’ll read up on it after I see the damn thing.) The couple of things I gleaned via osmosis about Sils Maria was that
1. Everyone was loving it.
2. Kristen Stewart was superb.

Some were expressing shock at #2. I guess these people didn’t see Adventureland. Or Stewart as Joan Jett. Tabloid press like the press she got for years, seeps into the air, it’s in the molecules; it sets up a kind of hostile relationship between actor and public, and it has nothing to do with the work that is onscreen. Press like that affects you, the viewer, whether you like it or not. She was fine in Twilight, but it felt to me like the overwhelming publicity made her nervous. She wasn’t, say, Julia Roberts, whose comment on what it felt like to become such a big star with Pretty Woman, was a gleeful, “Really really good.” There were times on red carpet events and interviews when Stewart seemed uncomfortable and embarrassed. Sullen, even, with all the attention. Maybe somewhere she knew she hadn’t earned it yet. Sometimes she appeared to be in over her head as an actress. She had some habitual gestures (pushing her hair behind her ear, for example) that came up repeatedly, and just showed that she was a bit green in her technique. Some of her work in Twilight reminded me of watching young kids in acting classes, college kids, who have a talent, but don’t quite know what to do with it yet. Their body language gives away their nerves and uncertainty. Unfortunately, Kristen Stewart was learning on the job in front of millions of people. Many don’t survive that kind of scrutiny.

I don’t find her to be a particularly romantic figure. Maybe that was part of the issue with Twilight. The material wasn’t appropriate for her but she was super young, she got cast, and she was contracted to finish the whole thing out. Stewart seems depressive to me. She’s gloomy. She’s slightly suspicious. Her sense of humor is cautious. She’s got some anger. She feels uncomfortable about that anger. There’s some interesting stuff going on there with her, a clash of needs: she wants to appear likable, but there’s something prickly about her, not ingratiating. That, by the way, is her most interesting characteristic. If she’s lucky, she will not be defined by Twilight, but the mere fact that people were surprised at how good she was in Clouds of Sils Maria shows her situation loud and clear.

Enough preamble. Let’s talk Clouds of Sils Maria. What a thrill this movie is! And yes, Stewart is as good as everyone said.

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Juliette Binoche plays Maria Enders, an international star. She became famous when she was 18, appearing in a play where she played a ruthless wild young woman who wraps her older female boss around her little finger. Now, pushing 50, Maria has been asked to appear in a revival of the play, only this time playing the boss, the older woman. A new up-and-coming star, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), has been tapped to play the role that Maria originated. Maria doesn’t really want to do the project, and has mixed feelings about it. But the director wants her, and wants her bad, his entire project rests on her participation. It’s a gimmick. Maria knows that, resents it, resents what it might mean about her career. But her resentment is nothing compared to what happens to her when she starts preparing for the role. At Maria’s side at all times, managing her career, running lines with her, is a young personal assistant named Valentine (Kristen Stewart).

This is a film about women, aging, and identity. The connections to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona are clear. Liv Ullmann, in Persona, plays a famous actress who has suddenly stopped speaking. Nobody knows why. She’s had some kind of nervous breakdown, and a nurse (Bibi Andersson) is hired to take care of her at a summer house retreat. The actress never speaks (Ullmann has only one line in the entire film), and the nurse, faced with that wall of silence, suddenly finds herself unable to stop talking. Over the course of Persona, the two women (quite literally at one point, in the most famous shot in the film) merge.

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This is a film about acting, one of the best I’ve seen on the topic. It’s up there with Opening Night, a film about Myrtle, an alcoholic middle-aged actress (Gena Rowlands), who rehearses a play and resists the process, mainly because the role she has been hired to play is that of a middle-aged woman who admits she is losing sexual power. Myrtle basically refuses to play the role as it is written: “If I play this part well, my career is over, you know that!” Meanwhile, as they rehearse the play, Myrtle becomes haunted (literally) by a young fan she saw hit by a car outside the theatre. That young woman, 17 years old, shows up, taunting Myrtle, basically flaunting her youth in Myrtle’s face in increasingly dangerous ways: “I have what you want. I’m young. You’re not anymore. Get out of my way.”

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The fear the older woman feels when she is confronted with the ruthlessness of youth, its self-absorption, its total lack of interest in who you are and what you may have to pass on. The terror of knowing it is time for you to step aside …

I thought of both Persona and Opening Night as I watched Clouds of Sils Maria, and yet the film is also clearly its own animal, with its own strange and uneasy identity. Mysterious, eerie in a way it is hard to decipher or pin down.

As I try to do, I avoided reviews until I had seen it. I am extremely grateful that I did. If someone had “spoiled” it for me, it would have completely changed my experience of the film. So consider that before you read further. I will do my best not to give anything away.

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Whose point of view is the film from? It seems to fluctuate. We see Maria through Valentine’s eyes, and yet there are times when we see Valentine through Maria’s. There are times when it appears to clearly be Valentine’s story. But then … it changes. And then changes back.

Is there some underlying hostility between Maria and Valentine? It’s hard to say. From the first scene, you get the sense that there is a comfort and ease between these two women that only occurs in the best business partnerships. Maria is the star. Valentine runs interference. She fields calls, she manages press, she also has input on what is happening, input that Maria needs.

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Maria is not a bitchy diva, treating her assistant like a peon. That’s not the relationship. The two of them hole up in a house in Switzerland in order to work on the script. They run lines. They smoke constantly. Maria stops, to talk about the scene, the character, how strange it is to be entering this well-trod territory only from another viewpoint. She can’t stand her new character. Why is she being forced to play a victim? Who does this young uppity bitch think she is? (The uppity bitch role that made her a star.)

Maria and Valentine hash all of this out in their rehearsal sessions. Valentine thinks the older woman role is a powerhouse, thinks that Maria is conceiving of the character too narrowly, too judgmentally. Maria listens. They try the scene again. Maria ends up stomping out of the house in a rage. They come back together to try it again.

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The role is hitting too close to home for Maria. What happens if she plays it well? What message will she be giving? What exactly is she participating in? Her own death-throes? An acknowledgement that she is losing her grip? If she plays the role successfully, she will have eclipsed herself, she will drown.

These long scenes, of the two of them rehearsing, over the breakfast table, or during long hikes through the mountains, are nothing short of extraordinary. I almost couldn’t believe what I was seeing. So few films about acting care enough to get it right. So few films about stardom really take the time to examine the nuts-and-bolts of acting process that helps most stars get to where they are. Maria is a real woman, smart, good at script analysis, maybe she drinks too much, maybe she has had a bunch of failed relationships, but she is not stupid, and she knows that by taking this role she is admitting something about herself, something that few women race to admit to, famous or no.

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An additional issue for Maria is Jo-Ann Ellis, the young actress hired to play the role she had originated. Maria has never met Jo-Ann. Valentine, however, knows everything about her and has been following her career for years. We don’t meet Jo-Ann until halfway through, although we are treated to Youtube footage of her getting arrested for a DWI and attacking the arresting officer, and press conferences where she behaves in a rude and sullen manner, looking like she just rolled out of bed.

Jo-Ann Ellis, in other words, is kind of a Kristen Stewart type. A young woman who is becoming a star, who is being hounded by the paparazzi and clearly isn’t handling it with grace. But Valentine has a different perspective on all of it, the perspective I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Maria is turned off by what she knows about Jo-Ann Ellis, and because Jo-Ann is in big superhero franchises and other stuff, Maria hasn’t taken the time to pay attention to the young woman’s acting. Superheroes? Who cares. But Valentine has taken the time, Valentine has paid attention.

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Valentine urges Maria to look PAST the comic book material Jo-Ann appears in, to watch the work, and watch what she is actually DOING onscreen. They go see Jo-Ann’s latest film at a small theatre in the nearby town. It’s some superhero intergalactic thing. Maria can’t take it seriously and laughs at it throughout. Valentine and Maria go out for beers afterwards to discuss. Valentine tries to make Maria see that Jo-Ann is doing stuff with her superhero role that other actresses wouldn’t do, she is using herself and her talent in an extremely interesting way, and she has a big big future. Valentine doesn’t plead her case with Maria. She insists that Maria look deeper, inquire deeper, get past your preconceived notions, watch the ACTING. Valentine’s critical analysis is extremely sophisticated (watch Stewart play these scenes: there had to be a real sense of fun and triumph for her in being allowed to, basically, stick up for herself, or for her alter ego!).

The scenes between Binoche and Stewart are a marvel, rich with behavior, rich with fascinating dialogue (Assayas wrote the screenplay as well). You get to know the play they are working on so intimately that it feels like an actual extant work, like Doll’s House or something. But as the rehearsal process goes on, something strange starts happening to Valentine, in conjunction with Maria’s disintegration into panic over succumbing to the role. They somehow become mirrors, but it’s not clear, at first, that that is what is happening. One night, Valentine takes the evening off to go meet a boyfriend and has to pull over to the side of the road to throw up.

And that’s all I’ll say about that. The less said about the Persona-like implications of the script the better. Best to watch it unfold, not knowing a thing.

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The rehearsal process, delving into the fictional story of a younger woman and her older female boss, start to blend the boundaries between Maria and Valentine with the characters in the play. There’s some transference taking place, something unspeakable, something disturbing. The setting adds to the dream-like qualities. Every day the clouds roll in between a gap in the mountains, and there’s something about the air currents, the way the mountains are shaped, that make the clouds into long ropy snakes, undulating low and relentless over the landscape, before passing on by. The clouds are supposedly a bad omen. They aren’t like other clouds. There’s something … uncanny about them.

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Just like there’s something uncanny about Clouds of Sils Maria. There are many reasons to love the film. Olivier Assayas is a huge talent, both in writing and directing. It’s a pleasure to watch whatever he is up to. It is also about acting, and I treasure films that are really about acting. About what acting can dredge up. Something may not be REAL, but it is still TRUE. Actors understand that better than most. It stars a trinity of three actresses: Binoche, Stewart and Moretz. Each are allowed to breathe, live, behave. Nobody’s a type. The film is about womanhood, in all its mess and complexity. It’s not a particularly kind film, but it is extremely smart. It keeps its cards very close to the vest.

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In the scene when Jo-Ann and Maria finally meet for the first time, before starting official rehearsals, Jo-Ann, eager to make a good impression, tells Maria that she had seen her play Nina in The Seagull and it blew her away. Ah, so Maria played Nina. Nina, the aspiring actress with the heartless famous actress mother. Nina, who shows up at the end of the play, close to madness, after realizing that a desire to do well does not mean that you actually WILL do well, telling her old childhood friend, in one of the most famous monologues ever written, and beloved of actresses everywhere:

He never believed in the theatre, he laughed at all my dreams, and little by little I stopped believing in it too. And then all the emotional stress, the jealousy; I was always afraid for the baby … I started getting petty, depressed, my acting was emptier and emptier … I didn’t know what to do with my hands, I didn’t know how to hold myself onstage, I couldn’t control my voice. You don’t know what that’s like, to realize you’re a terrible actor. I’m the seagull … No, that’s not it … Remember that seagull you shot? A man comes along, sees her, and destroys her life because he has nothing better to do … subject for a short story. No, that’s not it … What was I saying? Oh yes, the theatre … I’m not like that anymore. I’m a real actress now. I enjoy acting, I’m proud of it, the stage intoxicates me. When I’m up there I feel beautiful. And these days, being back here, walking for hours on end, thinking and thinking, I could feel my soul growing stronger day after day. And now I know, Kostya, I understand, finally, that in our business — acting, writing, it makes no difference — the main thing isn’t being famous, it’s not the sound of applause, it’s not what I dreamed it was. All it is is the strength to keep going, no matter what happens. You have to keep on believing. I believe, and it helps. And now when I think about my vocation, I’m not afraid of life.

Jo-Ann says to Maria that it was Maria’s performance as Nina that made her choose her “vocation,” a clear nod to Chekhov’s script (so if you know it, you will get the reference), and slightly manipulative (but very smart) on Jo-Ann’s part. You can see Maria suddenly SEE Jo-Ann in that moment, and realize she had under-estimated her. But there are all kinds of dizzying endless associations to be thought about and picked through here. The clash between art and life, the clash between reality and one’s dreams, the clash between what you want to express and what a piece of given material will allow you to express …

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There’s a mystery here. It’s not a “puzzle” film, thank goodness, although there will be those who treat it as a puzzle to be solved. That would be like watching Persona and mistaking it for Inception. There are mysteries in this life that are not to BE solved. The mysteries stand, impenetrable, forcing us to deal with the problems of our own lives, with the irreconcilable contradictions, with the harsh truths one cannot wriggle out of facing. Each character is facing a truth. Each character sees herself in the other. Each character loses her way, and then finds her way, and then loses it again. What will be the outcome? Can all three survive? Can all three get what they want?

The clouds roll in, like clockwork, relentless and strange, covering up everything in sight. Each character has a limited amount of time to figure it out, whatever “it” may be, before all will be obliterated.

It’s the kind of film that instantly expands, exponentially, the second it goes to black. It sets off echoes of reverb in the mind. It made me think, it made me go back and think about it, trying to understand. It is bigger than its parts. It holds multitudes.

A fascinating thought-provoking and deeply emotional film. I feel selfish about it, almost. Like: “This movie feels like it was made JUST for me.”

Thankfully, that is not the case. Clouds of Sils Maria hasn’t opened yet. It’s playing this week at the New York Film Festival. Wider release coming. One of my favorite films of the year so far.

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11 Responses to NYFF 2014: Clouds of Sils Maria (2014); directed by Olivier Assayas

  1. mutecypher says:

    Hadn’t heard of this before, now I really want to see it. According to Rotten Tomatoes, it will be released Dec. 1 – hope it comes to Kauai!

    //That would be like watching Persona and mistaking it for Inception.// That’s much worse than vice versa.

    • sheila says:

      Have a feeling it may be an Oscar contender – what with Binoche and Assayas and all. Hopefully it will get a nice wide-ish release. It’s so good!!

  2. george says:

    “There are mysteries in this life that are not to BE solved… This movie feels like it was made JUST for me.”

    And this review feels like it was made JUST for me. Being as far removed from an actor’s persona as I think is possible – a highly unreliable memory (learning lines would be near impossible) to being emotively challenged – makes acting, for me, a mystery. How do they do that? But a mystery, though remaining a mystery, becomes less so when one is clued in to realize there’s more to it than hitting your mark and saying the line.

    • sheila says:

      Beautiful comment, George!

      One of the things I love about films (or books or any art form) is when it introduces me to a world I know nothing about. I just saw the film “Nightcrawler,” opening soon, about freelance camera crews who race around LA filming crime scenes and then trying to sell their footage to local TV stations. It’s a wonderful film – great acting – but it was also just so fascinating, giving me a glimpse of a world I have literally never given a thought to until now. I was like, “Ohhhh, so that’s how that happens!!”

      Acting can be very mysterious – even to those in the profession – but there is definitely a reality to it, nuts and bolts stuff – running lines, script analysis, trying to find a “way in” to the role, personalizing stuff – I think Clouds of Sils Maria does an awesome job making all of that stuff palpable and interesting. But still mysterious.

  3. Laura says:

    I saw this movie and still something is bothering me..
    Where does Valentine go at the end?
    I thought Maria and Valentine would at least kiss or something..
    Valentine just dissapeared.

  4. sheila says:

    The mystery is not meant to be solved. I think it’s supposed to bother audiences. :)

  5. Sils of Maria. Great movie
    Puzzle, what happened to Valentine (Enders assistance) at the end. She just disappears
    How does it fit in the story. Is Valentine an imaginary assistant?
    Thanks

    Mario

  6. What happens to Valentine, Enders assistant towards the where she just disappears?

  7. Gabe Gonzalez says:

    Val disappears in the same ambiguous way as Helena (in the play within the movie) does.

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