The key performance in Clouds Of Sils Maria is not from Juliette Binoche, although she is wonderful, but from Kristen Stewart. Stewart, who was so good at being one-dimensional in the Twilight movies of yesteryear, has suddenly managed to grapple with intense internal conflict, so much so she damn near outshines the perennial Binoche. Watching the two is like watching Ali slug it out with Frazier, except no one comes out bruised and beaten.
Stewart plays Valentine, personal assistant and loyal friend to actress Maria Enders (Binoche). Maria is suffering indecision on multiple fronts. She has lived a privileged but fraught life, now she just wants out. She wants to live in peace, away from gossip, paparazzi, the internet. Her husband is about to leave her. An old colleague is about to reenter her life and stir up sour memories. She is approached by a famed stage producer to star in the sequel to the production that once made her famous. And she discovers that her mentor, the man who wrote and directed the original play, has died.
Valentine is important because she acts like Maria’s repository for confessions and whines. She’s always there when Maria needs advice, and provides a listening ear when she feels like talking about random facts of life that have no real impact on the plot. Maria dumps a lot on Valentine; watch how Stewart absorbs new information like a sponge and holds it in, twisting and coiling up within herself, wishing she had an assistant of her own.
Valentine is also key because she plays a trick on us — something strange and unexpected happens to her twenty minutes before the end, and the movie never speaks of it after even though it completely changes the complexion of Maria’s life. Does what I think happen to her happen to her? Can you recall how many characters she speaks to, or even interacts with, apart from Maria? I remember a hug, a hug she gives an old friend of Maria’s. That threw me off. Writer and director Olivier Assayas is shrewd in the way he shapes our understandings of his characters; he trusts in the intelligence of his audience and allows them to ponder and calculate results for themselves. If Hollywood had commissioned the screenplay, we’d have had to sit through a long and boring explanation as to why Maria’s mind is so chaotic, and why, of course, Valentine faces such a fate.
As it stands, I’m left with more question marks than full stops.
Clouds Of Sils Maria is a casual film. Casual in the sense that not much goes on in terms of a plot — most of the time is spent in dialogue between Maria and Valentine. Sometimes they talk like human beings, sometimes like wannabe professional critics, discussing the world as if through a looking glass. What they talk about is frequently interesting, but not all of it works.
And then Assayas throws in the wild card, the chainsaw, in the form of a spunky little girl called Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz). Jo-Ann is an up-and-coming actress who is set to star alongside Maria in the new sequel. She’s been projected to do very well, certainly Valentine is taken up with her. But she’s a bit too forced for me. Moretz doesn’t play her straight. She chooses instead to writhe her into a despicable teenager who lacks any kind of charisma and courtesy because that’s just how her generation does it. Why is the world so gosh darn obsessed with loathsome kids? How did Jo-Ann get to where she is by being so obnoxious? No matter. You won’t leave the theatre worrying about little Jo-Ann. Your mind will keep floating back to what happened to Valentine, and that’s all you will think about.
Best Moment | I enjoyed much of the repartee between Valentine and Maria.
Worst Moment | Any time Jo-Ann kicks into gear.