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Clouds of Sils Maria

You may have noticed that I haven’t been blogging as much of late. That’s partially because of all the various other projects and obligations that suddenly sprang on me over the past few weeks. And it’s also because there’s been nothing of interest to hit wide release lately.

Furious 7 was supposed to be the early start to the summer movie season, but that turned out to be a false promise. Between then and this weekend’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, what have we gotten? Paul Blart 2? The Longest Ride? Unfriended? The Age of Adaline? For various reasons, I simply can’t muster up the energy to even think about these movies, much less see them and write about them.

So I naturally go to the arthouses, and I find that Clouds of Sils Maria has just arrived in my area. Here’s a film with Juliette Binoche and Chloe Moretz, each of whom are extraordinary talents well worth watching. But then there’s the inclusion of Kristen Stewart, whose performance here somehow earned her a Best Supporting Actress Cesar Award.

To let that sink in, we’re talking about dead-eyed, monotone Kristen Stewart. The same Kristen Stewart who rose to fame through the detestable Twilight franchise and utterly failed to headline a second franchise as a warrior Snow White. The same Kristen Stewart who embarrassed herself in On the Road and Still Alice even though both films were practically set on a tee for her. And she won the French equivalent of a goddamn Academy Award for her performance in this film. More than that, she became the very first American actress to ever win such an honor (the second American in total, after Adrien Brody won a Best Actor Cesar for The Pianist in 2003).

Could it be? Are the legends true? Is it possible that Kristen Stewart’s inexplicable shot to stardom was powered by some modicum of talent that’s laid dormant all this time? Granted, she has stellar castmates, a talented crew, and an intriguing premise to work from, but she’s stunk up movies that had more to work with before. Let’s take a look.

Clouds of Sils Maria centers on a fictional play (by which I of course mean that it was invented for the film), titled “Maloja Snake”, written by Wilhelm Melchior. The titles of the play and the film both refer to a cloud formation shaped by a valley in the Swiss hills of Sils Maria. The play is about an older woman named Helena who falls madly in love with an 18-year-old intern named Sigrid. The characters in the film discuss their various interpretations of the play at great length, so I won’t go into details. Suffice to say that Sigrid’s seduction leads Helena to poverty, depression, and ultimately suicide.

Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is an actress who is very strongly identified with the role of Sigrid, having played her in the original theatrical production and also in the eventual film adaptation. For this reason, when Melchior is set to receive some kind of lifetime achievement award, the reclusive author requests that Maria go and accept the award on his behalf. On the way there, however, word gets out that Melchior has suddenly died. He actually committed suicide, but the press never gets wind of that part.

So Maria is going to accept an award on behalf of her friend and mentor — while she’s grieving for his death, no less — while she’s also juggling phone calls with her lawyer to settle her divorce. She’s going through a lot right now, and then a young hotshot director (Klaus Diesterweg, played by Lars Eidinger) comes along and makes things even more complicated.

Klaus wants to stage another production of “Maloja Snake” in London. And he wants Maria to join the cast… as Helena. This throws Maria for a loop in so many ways. After all, this play is very near and dear to her for a multitude of reasons, and she’s only ever seen the play through Sigrid’s eyes. Putting herself in the place of Sigrid’s opposite and looking at the story through Helena’s perspective is a tremendous challenge for her. Mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, it goes against decades of everything that Maria ever thought or knew about the play. Of course, there’s also the fact that taking the role would be a tacit acknowledgement that Maria is in fact getting older and possibly less relevant as well. As it is, she already has a sort of “cranky old woman” attitude toward online celebrity gossip, modern Hollywood blockbusters, and other facets of the current entertainment industry status quo.

What brings that into even sharper focus is the fact that Maria would of course have to act against a hot young up-and-comer in the role of Sigrid. Enter Jo-Ann Ellis, played by Chloe Moretz. Here’s a kid with a very strong theatrical background, who hit it big with a couple of movies and then spiraled into drug abuses, humiliating interviews, assault charges, and other tabloid antics. More recently, she’s moved to London in an effort at cleaning up her image by keeping Hollywood at arm’s length. Not that it stops the paparazzi, but still. The important thing is that she could just be a poor dumb kid with some honest-to-god talent, looking for a second chance after getting rich and famous too quickly led her into making a few mistakes. That or she really is a train wreck, it could go either way.

Incidentally, it was absolutely hilarious to watch Chloe Moretz play this role, since she’s miraculously avoided the kind of tabloid infamy so common among her peers. Moreover, with a couple of rare and debatable exceptions, Moretz has never played in the kind of billion-dollar-grossing sci-fi spectaculars that’s shown to be Jo-Ann’s bread and butter. Not only is Jo-Ann a very scathing parody of modern Hollywood at its worst, but she’s also a disturbing reminder that this is what Moretz’ career could so easily have become.

(Side note: That said, as long as Marvel and Sony are casting a high school Spider-Man franchise, Moretz would be a fine choice to play Gwen Stacy. Just want to throw that out there.)

Though Jo-Ann plays a significant part in the plot, the character herself is mostly an offscreen presence. The vast majority of the film is a two-hander between Maria and her personal assistant. Valentine (Kristen Stewart) works as a sort of impartial third party between Maria’s old school approach and Jo-Ann’s pop culture habitat. She’s a character who sees the value in both sides, which means that she can explain modern trends and make persuasive arguments in terms that Maria can understand. That’s not to say Maria always agrees, but she at least respects Valentine’s opinion.

A spectacular example comes when Maria and Valentine are talking about Jo-Ann’s new film, in which the latter character plays some kind of superpowered mutant on a spaceship who’s betrayed her people out of misguided love for the villain. Naturally, Maria treats the whole thing with scornful laughter. But Valentine makes the argument that there is still a kind of emotional truth underneath all the chintzy costumes and CGI. Just because something is flashy and silly, that doesn’t mean it can’t also have artistic merit. I have to admit, I damn near jumped out of my seat and cheered while I was watching that scene. I’ve spent so many years decrying the elitist “high art/low art” cinematic dichotomy, I wanted to shake the hand of writer/director Olivier Assayas for calling out that bullshit in such plain and fair terms.

Of course, a lot of credit for that is also due to Kristen Stewart’s delivery. I honestly can’t believe I’m saying it, but her performance here really is damn good. I think a lot of that has to do with the nature of her role — we’re not supposed to believe that Valentine is some gorgeous young ingenue, she’s just an everyday millennial. Moreover, I’ve never before seen or heard of a Kristen Stewart character who was supposed to be really smart. Considering that she plays intelligence surprisingly well here, and her previous roles were all stone-stupid (as far as I know, anyway), maybe that was the key all along. And of course, given Stewart’s own paparazzi run-ins and her famously tumultuous personal life, watching her character talk about celebrity gossip has a neatly meta kick to it.

With all of that said, however, perhaps the biggest factor is that Juliette Binoche gives her so very much to work with. That’s how great Binoche is as an actress — she can positively shine in a role and do it in such a way that her costars look that much better. It’s very clear in how they interact that even though Maria is technically Val’s boss, the two need each other very badly. It’s endlessly fascinating to watch the two of them interact, as they comfort each other, support each other, and challenge each other.

A large part of that naturally stems from the level of intimacy between them and the question of how far that extends. This becomes especially crucial as Val helps Maria run her lines. In so many ways, she is shown as the Sigrid to Maria’s Helena. There are so many times when it’s hard to tell whether or not they’re reading from the script, and that’s fascinating to watch. Moreover, where Maria is concerned, it shows that she really is a lot closer to Helena than she may be comfortable admitting. Klaus was absolutely right when he said that Helena and Sigrid were merely two sides of the same coin, and watching Maria come to terms with that provides some of the character’s juiciest internal drama.

It’s a great thing that the cast in this film is so rock-solid, because the rest of the film is problematic, to say the least. The editing is a prominent example, with so many cuts and fades to black that simply baffled me. Seriously, there’s one conversation early on that was cut in such a way that it looked like a handful of frames went missing. Between that and the frequent continuity glitches, I get the strong impression that Assayas was trying to cut three hours of dialogue into a two-hour movie.

The language barrier is also a potential drawback. It’s patently obvious that this was a multinational production, because there is A LOT of French and German spoken in this film. And it’s all done without subtitles. Most of the dialogue — along with every crucial plot point — is in English, so anyone who only speaks the one language should be able to get by just fine. Still, anyone who speaks French and/or German will be at a significant advantage.

I’d be perfectly willing to let the movie slide with these little nitpicks… but then the third act happened. I don’t know what to tell you, folks. The movie had me, and then it lost me. It’s like the film built up so much momentum and then drove off a ramp at 120 miles an hour, except nobody found out until too late that the ramp was right on top of a sheer cliff and there was nowhere to go except into a downward free fall.

The movie was all set and primed to make some big artistic statement about aging, relevance, entertainment, art, gossip, identity, romance, or something along those lines. I had grown to genuinely love these characters and I was all set to see some massive change in their development after everything that’s happened. But when the second act ends, the whole film seems to collapse into a formless mush. Some characters show up without introduction, and others leave without explanation or consequence. There are some thematic statements, but they all feel weak in comparison to what came before. And when the credits finally roll, there’s nothing but a dull sense of “that’s it?” I mean, I get that the filmmakers were going for ambiguity, and I can respect that to an extent. But they should never have tried to accomplish that by watering down or outright removing everything that made the film interesting up to that point.

Movies like Clouds of Sils Maria are the reason why I don’t give scores or grades in my reviews. There are a lot of great ideas in here, the camerawork is gorgeous, and the lead actresses are worth the price of admission three times over. But it’s tough for me to give the film a recommendation when the third act falls apart so badly. How can I recommend a movie that raises so many potentially fascinating themes and relationships, then refuses to do anything interesting with them through the last half-hour?

I don’t regret seeking this movie out or paying a full ticket price to see it in a theater. Not for a minute. But if anyone else preferred to wait for a rental, I would completely understand.

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