I missed this one at the cinema, where it played for only a couple of weeks, and waited much too long to watch the DVD. I have made repeated reference to the incredible quality of the acting in the films I have watched in recent weeks. But the acting in Clouds of Sils Maria, which was written and directed by Olivier Assayas, outshines them all. Kristen Stewart and Juliette Binoche were jaw-droppingly good. Stewart, in particular, blew me away with her perfect natural performance as Val, the personal assistant (PA) of Maria (Binoche), a famous actor (Binoche, also very good, didn’t blow me away because I have come to expect such performances from her).
Val and Maria are in Switzerland, where Maria has been persuaded to take the role of Helena in a dark play about the relationship between two women (Helena and her PA Sigrid). In the play, the vulnerable Helena is taken advantage of by the young Sigrid with whom she has fallen in love. When Sigrid dumps her, Helena commits suicide. Maria rose to fame twenty years earlier by playing Sigrid. Now she has difficulty coming to terms with playing the older woman, whom she sees as weak. As Val rehearses the play with Maria by playing Sigrid, a new layer is added to the story. Yet another layer comes into play when Jo-Ann (Chloë Grace Moretz), the young woman who will play Sigrid, meets Maria while in a complicated relationship with a married man.
The screenplay of Clouds of Sils Maria is the most intelligent I have seen this year. Along with the brilliantly-layered relationships, there are all kinds of remarks (some scathing) about the film industry and Hollywood as well as profound observations about aging and the constant need to reinvent ourselves and let go of the past as we get older. If anything, the screenplay may be a little too clever for its own good, coming at the expense of a more engaging story.
I was a little disappointed that the style of cinematography didn’t quite do justice to the gorgeous landscape, which is a key part of the story (note the similarities between this film, with its long conversations in the Swiss Alps, and Youth, also set in the Swiss Alps, and also with long conversations between two people about the theme of aging). But all of my complaints are minor, as Clouds of Sils Maria slips over the line into ****. My mug is up.