Thursday, April 09, 2015

“Clouds Of Sils Maria”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the drama, “Clouds Of Sils Maria”, starring Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz. 


When a famous actress agrees to star in a revival of a play she appeared in when she was young, will she be able to adapt to the role of the older woman?


Maria (Binoche) is on her way to the Swiss Alps to honor Wilhelm, a long-time colleague; accompanying her is Valentine (Stewart), her frazzled personal assistant who frequently goes above and beyond the call of duty.  With a successful acting career for many years, Maria is currently undergoing a personal crisis as she’s in the middle of a divorce – but things only get more stressful when she learns that en route to Wilhelm’s ceremony, he has died.  Although at first a heart attack is suspected, the truth is learned:  Wilhelm was diagnosed with a terminal illness and chose to take his own life. 

Upon Maria’s arrival, the mood is understandably somber due to the unexpected turn of events.  However, Maria is approached by a director mounting a new production of a play by Wilhelm, in which she starred as the ingénue two decades ago; this time, he wants her to play a different role – an older woman who is the ingénue's boss.  The role of the young woman is going to be played by Jo-Ann (Moretz), a Lindsay Lohan type better known for her scandals than her acting.  Maria agrees and proceeds to prepare for the play by having Valentine help – she keeps Maria company and runs lines with her. 

In the secluded mountainous region of Sils Maria, Maria and Valentine spend equal amounts of time working and socializing.  Tension develops between them when the pressure of this role begins to frustrate Maria, who then winds up taking it out on a severely overworked and grossly underpaid Valentine, who by now is feeling more like a slave than an employee.  Eventually, Valentine gets fed up, leaving Maria to fend for herself.  But once rehearsals begin, will Maria be able to get along with Jo-Ann or will their unwieldy egos get in the way?


No doubt about it, “Clouds Of Sils Maria” has some terrific performances by Stewart (surprisingly) and Binoche (not surprisingly).  Where the movie somewhat fails is in its static feel; in many respects, it appears as though it could’ve been better done as a play because much of its action takes place in virtually one set in each act (specifically, Wilhelm’s place in the first act, Maria’s house in the second act and the theater in the third act).  But it’s not only static in terms of its setting; it’s static in terms of a seeming lack of forward progress in the story.  At two hours, it feels so much longer. 

Speaking of the act breaks, the director has chosen to use title cards to inform the audience when each act ends and a new one begins; the beginning of the second act displays a title card of Part Two and the final act is introduced with the title card of Epilogue.  It is rather odd that it’s titled Epilogue because by definition, an epilogue is supposed to be short; this one goes on quite a while – it is really the story’s third act, so to characterize it as an Epilogue is confusing, misleading and downright inaccurate.  As long as the second act is – and it seems like a drawn out battle of wills between Maria and Valentine – the third act is longer than it needs to be as the audience is ready for a resolution.

While Binoche and Stewart at odds with each other can be entertaining because their acting both individually and together is so fine, the movie can be recommended more for that than its underlying story which plods along rather than supporting its actresses.  “Clouds Of Sils Maria” touches on some interesting ideas which are never quite fully developed.  One is the question of how a successful actress deals with past success in the face of aging.  The other is the worthiness of the big-budget Hollywood spectacles versus the merit of small independent films and whether the name actresses are selling out by appearing in the former in favor of the latter.   

Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) on IMDb

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