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With: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz, Lars Eidinger, Johnny Flynn, Angela Winkler, Hanns Zischler, Brady Corbet, Claire Tran
Written by: Olivier Assayas
Directed by: Olivier Assayas
MPAA Rating: R for language and brief graphic nudity
Running Time: 124
Date: 04/17/2015

Clouds of Sils Maria (2015)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Acting Out

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

French filmmaker Olivier Assayas is like a late member of the legendary French New Wave; he began writing about films for Cahiers du Cinema before picking up a camera, and though he has made all kinds of films from biopics to costume dramas, he, like his predecessors, loves to return to the subject o movies. Assayas' new film Clouds of Sils Maria is about a play, but it's set in the world of movies and movie stars.

Juliette Binoche gives another outstanding performance — as she did in Assayas' excellent Summer Hours (2009) — as successful actress Maria Enders. She has had a Hollywood career and remains respected, still remembered for her early work in a play called Maloja Snake by Wilhelm Melchior, which was also turned into a film. Now the playwright has died and a hot young director wants to stage it again, but with Maria playing the older character, and a young movie starlet Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz) playing Maria's former role.

Kristen Stewart plays Valentine, Maria's loyal assistant, who tries to buck her up every time she gets flustered, and folk singer Johnny Flynn plays Christopher Giles, a successful, but married novelist who falls in love with Jo-Ann.

Assayas' film sounds overwritten, with people talking just a bit too much to one another about their feelings and ideas, with just a little too much shared back-and-forth. But when it comes time for Maria to read her lines from the play, they suddenly sound strangely right. The play is about a young woman romantically and sexually manipulating an older woman in their workplace; it doesn't sound particularly profound, but apparently it's a big deal to Maria.

Generally, Assayas seems concerned with the state of human beings in movies today; in the world of these actors, Hollywood only makes spy movies and superhero movies, and the quality of parts available for actors mainly depend on the actor's attitude toward the role. We see a "clip" from a sci-fi movie with Jo-Ann doing her best, and Valentine admiring her for her efforts.

At the same time, Clouds of Sils Maria provides three very good roles for three interesting women, each without spacesuits or superpowers. All their time is spent thinking about acting, promoting their careers, and being famous, Maria trying to decide which events to attend, and Jo-Ann reeling from toxic run-ins with the press. Then, they must try to tune in to real emotions when it comes time to actually work. Fortunately, Assayas has painted them all to be real people, famous or not, actors or not; their emotions are genuine and genuinely relatable.

It's interesting to consider the idea of the "Maloja Snake," from the play, which refers to a natural phenomenon of fog gathering into a snake-like shape and maneuvering its way through a valley floor. One of the turning points in the movie occurs as characters attempt to see the snake in real life, but the snake winds up appearing and going about its business with no one around. In general, these characters seem to have everything worked out, but at the same time, Assayas just might be asking — and it's a good question — "what are we missing here?"

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