Age and stardom: My review of Clouds of Sils Maria

B+ drama

  • Written and directed by Olivier Assayas

A great stage actress and sometimes movie star (Juliette Binoche) reluctantly accepts to star in a revival of the play that made her famous. But there’s a catch. She’s too old to play the young, ambitious lesbian that became the defining part of her early career. Now she’s playing the older woman who falls for the young one, with disastrous results.

To prepare for the role, the actress and her personal assistant (Kristen Stewart) take up residence in a remote house located in an astonishingly beautiful part of the Swiss Alps. It’s not just any house, but the home of the play’s recently-deceased author.

In this lonely but magnificent setting, the two women hike, talk, confess, and run through the play’s dialog. As the actress learns her lines, the assistant  reads the lines for the young character that her employer once played. At times, it’s difficult to tell when they’re running lines, and when they’re talking as themselves.

I don’t want to suggest that the film’s characters come to mirror those in the play within the film. Their characters and their situations are very different. And yet, you can’t ignore that the young woman/older woman dynamic, and the employer/employee relationship, are part of both the play and the film.

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The actress and her assistant have a lot to work out together. On one level, they’re employer and employee. On another, they’re close friends, eating, drinking, and smoking together (both tobacco and pot), and talking about acting and life. They argue a lot about the very young movie star, played by Chloë Grace Moretz, who is taking the role that long ago made Binoche’s character famous. In a very real sense, the assistant is being paid to be a close friend and confidant. But is that the sort of role you can really do for money?

For some reason that I cannot fathom, writer/director Olivier Assayas built some unnecessary suspense into the story. Dialog and action often suggest that a horrible accident–probably a car crash–will change the nature of the story. Richard Linklater did something similar in Boyhood. It worked there because teenagers do stupid things and their parents worry constantly about possible consequences. Here, with two adults, it just felt distracting and unnecessary.

This is a film of spectacular natural beauty. The scenes in the Alps, many shot on a high bluff overlooking a spectacular canyon, can take your breath away–especially when the thick fog moves through the valley below. The picture was shot in widescreen scope on 35mm film. Film still has the edge when you’re photographing the magnificent outdoors–even if you’re projecting digitally.

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The scenes in the alps–whether outdoors or inside the house–make up a long second act–probably more than half of the film. The shorter first and third acts take place in more crowded locations, such as a train, an awards show, and the restaurants and clubs of London. The last act, officially tilted as an "Epilogue," lasts a bit too long.

The cast is excellent throughout, but Binoche and Stewart carry the film. Everyone knows Binoche’s brilliant tallent. If enough people see this picture, more will realize that Stewart–now free of teenage vampires–is also turning into a first-rate performer. With more maturity and enough good scripts, she may one day enter Binoche’s league.