Starring: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz
Veteran actress Maria Enders (Binoche) is persuaded to star in the remake of a play that brought her the extreme fame she has had for the last twenty years, but now as the older character with young actress Jo-Ann Ellis (Moretz) playing the younger character that Maria played. As Maria and her young assistant Valentine (Stewart) act out the play together, she experiences a crisis of identity as the boundaries of art and life begin to blur.
Films exploring the shallow, fickle and cynical nature of the film industry are of course nothing new, and though there is no denying that Olivier Assayas’ film is an intelligent examination of some very pertinent themes, for me it perhaps tries to bite off more than it can chew, and ultimately just does not go far enough to be as memorable or as cathartic as it could have been.
I am aware that I am not the first to say this now, but while watching I did generally think of All About Eve, and though Clouds of Sils Maria certainly has admirable ambition and intelligence, and most certainly some themes at its heart similar to All About Eve, it just for me attempts to take on too many themes and in doing so never goes deep enough with any of them, which is ultimately quite frustrating. Likewise, as an overall narrative viewing experience it feels too stagey, ill-disciplined and televisual, making the viewing of it at times quite hard work for little reward.
This is a real shame, and it gives me no pleasure in criticising the film as there are some great individual moments. For example; the generational differences between Maria and Valentine and what they regard as great storytelling provide a superb and fascinating backdrop to the overall narrative. They both have vastly different interpretations of the characters in the play and also what supposedly makes not only a great character, but also a great acting performance. The scenes in which they read through the play together provide fascinating viewing as they offer subtext as to the relationship between the two characters as well their own individual ideologies, while Assayas cleverly throws us into these scenes so it sometimes takes us a while to realise whether they are just reading what they are saying or it is casual conversation.
Likewise the scenes between Enders and Ellis are rich with subtext and many of the lines of dialogue exchanged between characters suggest several things and Assayas does skilfully make things ambiguous at times. Yet these also prove to teasing hints at how truly great Clouds of Sils Maria could have been had it had gone further in its examinations and realised its potential.
The performances from all three actresses are exceptional and only help to make these scenes when they are supposedly reading from a script (within a script) electrifying. Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz encapsulate the very different generational mind sets and ideologies of their characters perfectly and these performances most certainly only enhance the engagement of the film.
Despite the interesting themes at the heart of the narrative and the committed performances, I cannot help but feel that Assayas flirts with a deeply invigorating examination of these wonderful themes, but severely fails to utilise them due to the film’s stodgy and lacklustre structure. The fact the film has two acts and an epilogue (which are written on screen) seems to show an obvious intention to mimic the structure of a play. This is fine in premise, but Assayas’ ill-discipline produces a film that is a good thirty minutes too long with a plethora of unnecessary scenes that add nothing, and ultimately having three characters so prominent just overloads the narrative too much and ultimately undermines its potential.
For me having Maria Enders and then just one of either Valentine or Jo-Ann as the focus and direct comparison would have allowed a more specific and therefore more thorough narrative analysis that would have hopefully been as deep and as scathing an analysis as I would like a film of this nature to be. It seems Assayas wants his film to be like a play, therefore surely an outright verbal tug of war between two characters would be overall a far more effective exploration of the themes of the narrative. Though Clouds of Sils Maria has some great ideas and great individual moments, it is ultimately a frustrating case of unrealised potential.
A drama of admirable ambition and ideas, but let down by directorial over ambition and ill-discipline; Clouds of Sils Maria frustrates and engages in equal measure, but the ideas and great performances make it worth a watch.