No Country for Old Women: A Review of Olivier Assayas’s ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’

clouds of sils maria

There are a lot of younger women killing older women in Clouds of Sils Marie. Not quite in a literal sense, but indirectly and metaphorically. The latest film by French director Olivier Assayas stars Juliette Binoche as an aging actress, and features -somewhat improbably- Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz in supporting roles. It is the director’s first attempt at an English-language movie, a proposition that -if we judge based on other international auteurs– does not always result in great filmmaking. Sils Maria turns out to be a very engaging film thanks to its performances and apparent symbolism, even if, once interpreted, said symbols turn out to be a little disappointing.

For mot of its running time, Sils Maria takes the form of a two-hander between Binoche (playing fictional actress Maria Enders) and Stewart (as her personal assistant Val). Maria is having trouble dealing with the fact that she is getting older, which is completely understandable for any woman, and especially one working in as seemingly superficial a profession as acting. The triggers to her growing internal conflicts come in two forms: First, the death of Wilhelm Melchior, the author who wrote and cast Maria in the role that made her famous. Second, in the fact that said play -called Majola Snake- is being remade. Back in the day, Maria played the role of Siegfried, a young woman who drives her older lover to suicide, but twenty years later, Maria is not being offered the role of Siegfried, but that of Helena, the older lover.

This is a pretty interesting set-up for the exploration of an aging actress, and pretty similar to what Julianne Moore’s character went through in David Cronenberg’s latest Maps to the Stars (which like Sils Maria, debuted at last year’s Cannes Film Festival). The difference is that in Maps, Julianne Moore was trying to play a role created by her mother, while Binoche here seems to be graduating into a “weaker” role, and being replaced by a younger, more desirable, actress (Chloë Grace Moretz as a Lindsay Lohan-type figure). In that sense, the movie seems to be more closely related to backstage theater drama of All About Evealthough the main relationship in the movie is not that of Maria and the younger actress, but that of Maria and her assistant.

As a matter of fact, the movie open with Val taking phone calls and making arrangements for Maria’s arrival at a prestigious awards ceremony. This may come as a surprise to all the Twilight haters out there, but Kristen Stewart is pretty fantastic in the role of Val. She clearly establishes herself as the most interesting character in the movie’s first part. There is an admirably casual pragmatism to the way Val excels at her job. She walks into a room, and tailors it to her employer’s preferences without Maria even making a gesture. She can joke and tease Maria about her past love affairs, and deliver tragic news with the same calmed, professional demeanor.

It’s in the second part of the movie that Val starts to shine not only as a character, but as a performance. One doesn’t have to pretend that Stewart is not a somewhat limited actress to recognize that she is great in this role. It’s clearly the most natural and lively job she’s ever done. This second part of the movie has Maria and Val staying at the place where the play Maria will be performing in was written, a house located in the Swiss mountain town of Sils Maria. This part of the movie sees the two ladies go on hikes, read excerpts from the play as Maria prepares for rehearsal, and have lots of conversations about the play. It’s during these conversations that the themes of Clouds of Sils Maria are said aloud by the characters, and it’s made clear that the movie is, indeed, about the process of aging, replacement, and death.

There is a lot of conversation about the characters in the play being the same woman at different stages of her life (not necessarily literally, although I guess you could interpret it that way). These type of comments hint at the possibility that there might be something more metaphysical than expected to Maria and Val’s relationship. A twist late in the movie sets the stage for a resolution inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s Persona or even David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr.* Assayas, however, goes in a more literal direction, and the last part of the movie seems to only reinforce the themes that we already suspected were in play here. Part of the problem is that Val -clearly the most interesting character- kind of exits the picture, and we’re left with Maria’s less interesting middle-age drama.

Even if it’s not quite as great as Assayas’s other recent works, Clouds of Sils Maria is a very entertaining watch. Binoche and Stewart make a terrific acting duo, and even Chloë Moretz -whom I don’t usually like- is really good in her role as a spoiled child of Hollywood. It’s also not the fact that the story of an aging woman dealing with her mortality is not interesting (it is at the very least more interesting than the story of an aging man dealing with his), but the movie’s first two movements seem to hint at Assayas trying to engage with something deeper, and more esoteric than what Sils Maria ends up being about.

Grade: 7 out of 10

*On a somewhat unrelated note, I noticed that all the movies I cited as comparisons in this review were directed by men. Might there be a great essay to be written about male filmmakers’ apparent fascination with the bonds and affections between women? Or if it already exists, would anyone care to send me a copy?  

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