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Cloudy With a Chance of Greatness

Clouds of Sils Maria is not to be missed


Juliette Binoche (left) and Kristen Stewart (right) soar above the Clouds of Sils Maria, opening Friday, May 1.

I've looked at clouds from both sides now--and that would be both sides of the border. I've had the pleasure of screening Clouds of Sils Maria, an elegantly complex aria from writer/director Olivier Assayas (Carlos, Irma Vep) twice: first at its North American premiere during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival and again recently, which prompted me to dust off my notes from last September's TIFF.

"Revelatory. Dense. Precise. Loved it," I scribbled in my notebook seven months ago. "Could Juliette Binoche be any more perfect?"

Having talked to the Oscar-winning Ms. Binoche on a few occasions over the years, I must concede to being a bit tongue-tied in her presence; for me, her beauty is matched only by her artistry. In her latest project, that loveliness is eclipsed by some stunning vistas of the Swiss Alps, which play a key role in the film.

"I've worked with Olivier twice before [in 1985's Rendez-vous and 2008's Summer Hours]; but this time it was me who approached him for a new project," Binoche told Boise Weekly in Toronto. "And he put together a beautiful story about the certainties of being, and the uncertainties of being; and life's marriage of those certainties and uncertainties."

Binoche's portrayal of mature film actress Maria dances among those uncertainties throughout Clouds of Sils Maria—not unlike the real-world, river-like clouds high above Sils Maria, Switzerland, which snake through the peaks of the Alps high above the Swiss lake country. When the clouds form that river and rush through the Alps during a crucial scene in Clouds of Sils Maria—and whatever you do, don't miss this part of the movie—you may be inclined to agree with me that that particular cinematic experience is, alone, worth the price of admission.

The phenomenon, known as the "Maloja Snake," is also the name of a fictional film that Binoche's character starred in two decades earlier. As Clouds of Sils Maria opens, Maria has been invited to star in a remake of "Maloja Snake," but not in her original role. In the remake, Maria is cast as an older character, with her original role being handed to a shrewd, punk-ass Lindsay Lohan-like ingénue, played deliciously by Chloe Grace Moretz. Making matters worse, Moretz's character in the fictional film wraps the older woman around her finger. Suffice to say, the script seethes in psychosexuality, and there are more than a few hints of All About Eve echoing throughout Clouds of Sils Maria.

"Honestly, this is a difficult film to describe because, if you think about it, it asks us: 'What is fiction?' versus 'What is reality?'" Binoche told BW. "When you play a role in a story that is as complex as this, it really becomes a discovery."

What continues to be a true discovery is the ever-improving career of Kristen Stewart, who has gone from the Twilight films to impress us with a string of solid performances in supporting roles. Fresh from the success of her wonderful supporting performance in Still Alice, here Stewart plays Valentine, a personal assistant to Binoche's character. Stewart's work in Clouds of Sils Maria is so subtle, yet so precise, that upon second viewing I have even more admiration for her performance. Quite appropriately, she was the first American actress to win France's national film award, the Cesar Award, in 2014.

Overall, Clouds of Sils Maria rolls out a bit like an Ibsen play; it has very distinct three acts (and each gains in intensity), yet all of those acts piece together perfectly in a dense examination of drama in general and the lives of female actresses in particular. It's abundantly clear that writer/director Assayas loves his actresses and the three that he has here—Binoche, Moretz and Stewart—are accorded with compassion and respect. Do not miss this film; and for heaven's sake don't miss those clouds.

Related Film

Clouds of Sils Maria

Director: Olivier Assayas

Producer: Charles Gillibert and Sylvie Barthet

Cast: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Moretz, Lars Eidinger, Johnny Flynn, Angela Winkler, Hanns Zischler, Aljoscha Stadelmann, Luise Berndt, Gilles Tschudi, Benoït Peverelli and Brady Corbet