Cinema Review: Clouds of Sils Maria | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Monday, April 6th, 2020  

Clouds of Sils Maria

Studio: IFC Films
Directed by Olivier Assayas

Apr 14, 2015 Web Exclusive
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In Clouds of Sils Maria, director Olivier Assayas is one step ahead of the audience the whole time, waiting for the right moment to reveal his hand. A deftly self-conscious film, the viewer is expected to make assumptions about narrative and thematic parallels that blatantly operate on multiple levels. For one, the casting – Juliet Binoche as Maria Enders, a well respected actress approaching middle age, threatened by and unable to relate to the younger generation and their superhero movies; and Kristen Stewart as Valentine, her intelligent but flip and savvy personal assistant – is as much a part of the story as the story within the film itself. The play for which Maria spends the majority of the action rehearsing also contains its own parallels: an older woman lusting after her young assistant to the point of obsession. But Assayas doesn’t play this for obvious meta-commentary. Instead, by creating a narrative that takes multiple unexpected twists and turns, he challenges the viewer to resist the urge to make these easy comparisons, asking us to abandon preconceived expectations and interact exclusively with what is onscreen.

It begins as an approachably mellow behind-the-scenes glimpse into the privileged, often frivolous quotidian life of a celebrity (even a smart member of ‘high culture’ such as Maria Anders) punctuated by inside jokes and knowing satire. But when Maria begrudgingly takes a role in the revival of a play that launched her acting career twenty years prior, she quickly and seamlessly moves the film into an intense and heady discussion of art and the creative process.  Just as this chapter threatens to become alienatingly antiseptic with too much chit-chat, Assayas blindsides with a shock to reveal an unexpectedly intense emotional core. Without dwelling, the film gathers itself, recuperating and moving on with poise. But questions remain unanswered.

What could be, in less capable hands, pretentious and frustrating is, in this case, intimidatingly smart. Assayas is insightful and playful as always, but Clouds of Sils Maria outshines much of his recent work in its maturity, achieved through restraint. So much of the story is left off-screen and what is only implied comes through as a result of good work and massive talent across the board. Each character, though many of them familiar archetypes, is three dimensional enough to support lengthy intellectual discussion, and likable enough to keep things interesting. With Clouds of Sils Maria, Assayas’s triumph is creating a film that succeeds on multiple levels; no reading impedes another. It pokes fun at celebrity culture when contextualized within the real world, and at the same time stands alone as an incredibly entertaining and stimulating film about friendship, growing old, and the artistic process. As Valentine puts, “The text is like an object. It will change perspective no matter where you stand.”

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Author rating: 8.5/10

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