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Clouds of Sils Maria

April 17, 2015
Clouds of Sils Maria

I have to start out this review with a moment of humility: I may have been overly harsh on Kristen Stewart. I still say the whole Twilight series is trash, but I’ve already forgiven Robert Pattinson for his part in that. Snow White is still the worst part of Snow White and the Huntsman, but I was probably too harsh on Stewart there; it’s hard to go up and over the way Charlize Theron does, and Snow White just wasn’t written as well as Ravenna. I still don’t think Stewart really got Joan Jett in The Runaways, but she wasn’t really bad, and I actually rather liked her in Still Alice.

So it’s been a process, but it’s Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria that has made me publicly recant some of my harsh words like this. And that’s not just because her performance is the best I’ve seen in her career; it’s also because there’s a whole scene where Stewart apologizes for Twilight, even as she defends her place in it.

Stewart plays Valentine, the personal assistant to the actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche). Maria’s career was jumpstarted when she originated the younger of the two female leads in Maloja Snake, by a Swiss playwright with whom she has remained close. In the wake of his death, she is tapped to play the older woman in a London revival of the play. Maria and Valentine move into the playwright’s house at the end of an alpine lake in Sils Maria to prepare for the role. And as they run lines, with Valentine taking the part of the younger assistant who wraps the older businesswoman around her fingers, the lines between the women and the characters in the play seem to blur.

Things are further complicated by the actress tapped to take over the part Maria first portrayed. Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a tabloid fixture who most recently starred in a CGI-heavy sci-fi blockbuster with a script that can at best be described as “dubious”, despite its riff on more classic stories. The echoes of Stewart’s own career are deliberate, as Assayas blends layers of the narrative not only with each other but with real life.

Casting Moretz as the shadow-image of Stewart continues the pattern, as her performance in Let Me In stands as an artier version of the vampires from Twilight. Assayas himself built a reputation on another film-within-a-film story in Irma Vep, about a filmmaker trying to remake Louis Feuillade’s Les vampires. And Binoche’s early career even includes Leos Carax’ Mauvais Sang, which is all but a vampire movie itself.

All this seems like so much trivia and coincidence, until you see the central relationships in Clouds of Sils Maria bearing out the same theme. The younger woman, hungry for her place in the world, sucks the life out of the older one who has past her prime. Or is it that the older woman attaches herself to younger women to siphon off their élan vital and maintain her position as long as she can manage it? Maybe everyone is a vampire, feeding off of whomever they can.

Assayas spins out so many layers of the story, then arranges them delicately to echo and resonate with each other. It’s an endlessly fascinating, ever-shifting landscape, like the Maloja Snake itself, the mysterious pattern of clouds that creeps over the lake of Sils Maria, shrouding the landscape in its mists.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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