Perhaps “Clouds of Sils Maria” is a film of altitudes. It is performed at three levels: the foot of the mountain, in the foothills of the mountain, and on top of the mountain. There is no greater significance in this film than ascending and descending, up and down, a passage of time and world. As events transpire, we have little recognition of what day it is, what hour it is, etc. The sun rises and falls on Maria (Juliette Binoche) and Val (Kristen Stewart), on the play they are rehearsing, on Sils Maria, and there’s little significance. Late in the film, Maria turns her attention to the passing of Majora’s Snake, a rare cloud formation signaling an incoming storm. We lose her to the majesty of the anomaly. Because throughout the movie, only one thing has been certain: time passes.
I am grateful to have had two weeks to mull things over before even attempting to write this review. “Clouds of Sils Maria” is a tangled rope, and upon tugging it in opposite directions, one of two things will happen: either the rope will become hopelessly, irrevocably knotted, or it will pull thin and taut, the tangles having untangled themselves. Faux-complexity, let’s call it. The anti-climax that is the film’s closing scenes is shocking in the questions it leaves unanswered. The meta-drama of having an actress play an actress playing a new role in an fake play throughout a real movie leaves one slightly off-kilter. It seems like set-up for something monumental. I was waiting for an avalanche to sweep through and destroy their mountainside retreat, for someone to slip and fall to her death, for tragedy in the most unpredictable way. But as the film reaches its epilogue, everything deflates.
Most of the scenes concern Maria and Val rehearsing the fictional play Maloja Snake. Maria has agreed to play the role of Helena, an aging executive, after having launched her career by playing Sigrid, the seductive assistant, so many years earlier. The play concerns the duo’s lesbian affair (the alluring younger role now filled by rising star Jo-Ann Ellis, played in the film by Chloe Grace-Moretz) and the dynamic that results between the two. These scenes are plainly shot and performed. We’re supposed to derive from these interactions hints of the relationship between Maria and Val, make connections between the fiction of the play and the reality of its staging. Or are we? Are there connections to be made in the first place? Maria is an actress in the twilight of her career, just as Helena is. Val does not appear to be the hungry and vindictive Ingrid. Tension comes between Maria and Val as the latter struggles to reconcile her feelings toward the characters from having performed the piece as a burgeoning star, clashing with Val’s own interpretation of certain events. It all feels just short of meaningful. Is that intentional?
A major issue with the film is the performance of Kristen Stewart. The scenes in which Maria and Val rehearse the play are embarrassing in terms of the disparate levels of talent involved. Juliette Binoche is a terrific actress, but pairing her with Stewart was a dreadful decision. The passion and nuance with which Binoche approaches the film is completely derailed by Stewart’s bland, even delivery of every line. It is a bored performance, one without the want to reach the level of its counterpart or reach its audience in any way.
Moretz’s Jo-Ann Ellis – the new Sigrid—is a “Hollywood” actress, a young starlet who’s sci-fi epic has just premiered. The former watches it incredulously, peering over the plastic rims of her 3D glasses in disbelief. Surely, she thinks, this cannot be considered acting. The movie is intentionally ridiculous and cheap looking to emphasize just how ridiculous blockbusters are. It’s as if the director agrees with Maria; surely, he thinks, this cannot be considered filmmaking.
So perhaps it is a film of altitudes, or maybe it’s a film of one altitude, one level occupied always by Maria and Val, it moving with them. Maybe where we are is irrelevant to the play, the art, the bridge between performer and performance, if it exists. If I seem vague, it’s because I have no real understanding of how to approach this review. While watching, I couldn’t help but feel that the movie was the equivalent of that friend who keeps glancing at you, hoping you find whatever you’re doing as funny as he does. It wants you to ask questions, and it smugly awaits the chance to answer them. There were moments of coherence, when the film feels nearly genuine, only to be snatched away at the last minute.
I have three opinions. One is that the movie is a deep, complex work too advanced for my uncultured mind. Another is that the movie is a vapid mess that overestimates its own significance. The final one is that the movie is a vapid mess but knows it’s a vapid mess and is therefore making a statement about the condescending nature of art house movies. I’m not leaning towards any of them at the moment. Director Olivier Assayas might have had specific intentions, but if the viewer cannot discern what those intentions are and is left wondering if what he saw was great or terrible, chances are those intentions were unfulfilled. A good movie should be good on several levels, not just one or two of them that are unclear to the filmgoer. It shouldn’t turn into a guessing game.
Review by Lucas Dispoto
“Clouds of Sils Maria” is now playing at the Kendall Square Cinema in Boston.