Clouds of Sils Maria is a thought-provoking meta-fiction that challenges its audience to examine themes of power, aging, and attraction through the eyes of characters that escape the bounds of the presented narrative.
The film’s straightforward plot gives off the illusion of simplicity. Juliette Binoche plays Maria Enders, a 40-something actress who shot to fame in her youth after starring in the film adaptation of the Sapphic play “Maloja Snake”. Enders reluctantly accepts a part in a theatrical revival of the play starring newcomer Jo-Ann (Chloë Grace Moretz); the twist, however, is that she must play the role opposite the young character she embodied twenty years ago. No longer playing the femme fatale, Enders must struggle against the defeatist narrative of her older role in order to maintain her sanity. The sounding board for Enders’ insecurities is assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart), who caters to all of her boss’s needs and neuroses, becoming more of a therapist and sexual curiosity as the two run lines in preparation for the play.
Although centring on how “Maloja Snake” profoundly alters the aforementioned characters, Clouds of Sils Maria is equal parts an exploration of the actresses that expertly play them. Watching the film, it’s impossible to view Jo-Ann’s role as mistress and popcorn flick star in a vacuum devoid of Stewart’s Hollywood baggage. Similarly, the viewer begins questioning Binoche’s own feelings about playing an aging actress whose roles gradually become based in weakness and vulnerability rather than strength.
Olivier Assayas’s experimental screenplay and direction forces you to question what the women think and feel during the film’s entire run time. Not for one second are you allowed to sit comfortably and just watch a story unravel mindlessly; you must question and ponder. Despite a head-scratching ending that makes the film’s ultimate message unclear, the brilliantly acted Clouds of Sils Maria is still well worth your time.
This review was originally published as part of our TIFF 2014 coverage.