Stage legend's age rage

Clouds of Sils Maria (MA). Director: Olivier Assayas. Starring: Juliet Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz. 124 minutes

Time for me to eat my words. A glance through my back catalogue of reviews for Eureka Street reveals that not once but twice have I disparaged Kristen Stewart's abilities as an actor. Challenge me on this in conversation and I'd have qualified it by saying that I like her as an actor — that she has charisma, but as far as I can tell not much range or depth, at least on the evidence of her career to date.

While I stand by my assessment of those performances, I freely admit that my doubts about her potential sold her short. Her latest film, French filmmaker Olivier Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria, is a masterpiece of character-driven drama, and Stewart's performance is a large part of its success. It is no coincidence that she won a prestigious César Award for it, the first American woman to do so.

The film stars Juliet Binoche as Maria Enders, a famous stage and film actor who finds herself cast in a new production of the play that kick-started her career 20 years ago. The play, Maloja Snake, explores the tempestuous relationship between a businesswoman, Helena, and her much younger assistant, Sigrid. Back then, Maria played Sigrid. Now, she is to portray the older woman, Helena.

With her own assistant, Valentine (Stewart) in tow, Maria retreats to a house at Sils Maria in the Swiss Alps, to prepare. Valentine is a skilful, dedicated assistant, whose intelligent views on the play's themes and subtext, and on contemporary culture generally, do not always sit well with Maria. But if age puts distance between them, the space is bridged by mutual affection and often-fiery camaraderie.

Working with Assayas' fine script, Stewart — a chameleon in big glasses and daggy-chic clothes — is a revelation alongside the proven talent of Binoche. The two actors plumb the depths of Valentine and Maria's rich internal lives and deconstruct their compelling and psychologically complex relationship. Are they merely employer-employee, or are they friends, would-be lovers, or pseudo-mother-and-daughter? Or is there a more sinister dynamic at play? There is enough going on behind the eyes and in the carefully studied gestures of both women to suggest that any or all of these could be the case.

In a further turn of the screw, the film contains numerous scenes in which Maria and Valentine run lines from the play, and it is not always clear where the rehearsal ends and conversation resumes. Is this Maria speaking now, or Helena? The script's blurring of the lines between reality and performance only heightens the complexities and ambiguities of the characters and their relationship.

The film is in large part an exploration of the experience and psychology of women in an industry where their youth and beauty is frequently treated as a commodity. Through her engagement with the play, Maria — for whom the material is intimately associated with her youth and who resents being now cast as the older woman — probes her own ambivalence and insecurities about getting older.

Rubbing salt in the wound is Hollywood bad girl Jo-Ann Ellis (Moretz), who has been cast as Sigrid in the play. The darling of sleazy tabloids also happens to be a gifted actor — even Valentine admires the depth Jo-Ann brings even to trashy blockbusters. Young, beautiful and talented, Jo-Ann is a threat to Maria in almost every way, not least because she has now commandeered Maria's most iconic role.

Clouds of Sils Maria is deceptively gripping for a film that is so relentlessly wordy and fairly uneventful, at least at surface-level. Its most dramatic plot twist occurs with such little fanfare that it leaves plenty of room to reflect on exactly what it means (and that's the point). That the film is so compelling is testament to the exquisite script and the superb performances of Binoche, Moretz, and Stewart.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Clouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas, Juliet Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz

 

 

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