Running Up That Hill
by ALEX CARNEVALE
Clouds of Sils Maria
dir. Olivier Assayas
She is tired, actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is, of watching movies set on other planets. She takes a role in the revival of a play that is set on earth. Her personal assistant (a more generic looking than usual Kristen Stewart) tells her that even if the settings of these fantasy films are unfamiliar, the emotions and themes are basically the same.
Stewart smokes throughout Clouds of Sils Maria. Between cigarettes she opines, at length, on the difficulties of being Kristen Stewart. The hardest parts are as follows:
1) Being on the news for cheating on your boyfriend
2) See No. 1.
By the thirtieth cigarette, an intense disdain for everything outside of the stunning Swiss mountains of Clouds of Sils Maria washes over us. The only thing moral in the movie are the environments themselves; the actors and actresses that populate the landscape are purposefully positioned as transient fog.
Binoche plans to take the senior role in the play that began her career as a precocious 20 year old. She runs the scenes with Stewart, rehearsing the text of this fictitious play about a lesbian who dominates and is dominated by her secretary. The text of the stage play and conversations between the two women from different generations run into each other in an amusing way that almost makes us forget how the play-within-a-play is as decidedly impotent as the actual drama occurring. Played off each other, the maelstrom creates a far more riveting narrative than either offers in isolation.
Binoche harbors a muted sexual affection for Stewart's douchey assistant that is never consummated. Because her ego is too large, she can't see the world from any other perspective but her own. She is forced, against her better instincts, to take a thankless role opposite Jo-Ann Ellis (a rather one note Chloe Moretz), a young starlet in the the vein of half Jennifer-Lawrence and half Stewart herself. (The shots at Lawrence in Clouds of Sils Maria's savage X-Men parody are a bit unnecessary, but what the hell.)
Moretz's Ellis breaks up the marriage of a novelist and his artist wife, bringing even more attention to Binoche's production. The suffering wife attempts suicide. We experience the only real tragedy of Clouds of Sils Maria as she google image searches a view of the man's nearly dead partner, to find out what kind of person would make a decision of real consequence in a world without any.
Binoche holds the entire movie together as much as she can through sheer force of will. She is better than almost every actress of her generation at the difficult trick of dying and coming alive again in a single scene. We are always able to see the whole story in her chastely wrinkled face, but like any true professional, she keeps us blind to the twists and turns, never broadcasting or telegraphing her inner turmoil.
It is hard to make a sincere satire, but it is fun to watch Assayas, probably the most exciting director working today, give it his all. Assayas doesn't get much out of the young actresses at his disposal, which is perhaps the point. If either of them were any good, it would prove we have no need for Binoche's Maria Enders at all.
Stewart struggles here for the most part. Her understated style suits the quieter scenes well, but she has difficulty projecting anger or discontent as anything but a lame sulk. Her body is exposed a few times as a temptation for Binoche's character; but nothing ever materializes from it, probably because Stewart's sexuality is diminished by our knowledge of the type of person she actually is. When she disappears from Clouds of Sils Maria; it is supposed to be heartrending, but it is something more like a relief.
Still, Clouds of Sils Maria is so technically brilliant that it overcomes the unlikeability of these people through sheer enthusiasm for superior composition and design. The Hollywood parody is as tired and broken as a superhero movie, but themes of passing and aging manage to triumph. In some ways Clouds of Sils Maria is more like watching a nature documentary about human beings than a mannered industry satire about the essential lack of empathy that comes, instinctively, with any kind of wealth or power.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
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