Monday, April 13, 2015


Writing about Olivier Assayas' latest film is going to be a little difficult because on some level I've already written about it in the form of Portrait Of The Artist (I even mention Assayas' filmography quite a bit throughout the review). I don't like repeating myself in write-ups but it's hard not too as both Portrait & Clouds Of Sils Maria mesh fiction & non-fiction in an almost identical way (some of the actors in both films play slightly fictionalized versions of themselves).
In Clouds Of Sils Maria Juliette Binoche plays an accomplished veteran actress ("Maria Enders") with a resume that stretches from big budget mainstream movies to foreign arthouse films. Sounds a bit like Juliette Binoche's actual career, doesn't it? Not only is Binoche a mainstay in the films of arthouse heavyweights like Michael Haneke & Leos Carax, but she's also appeared in more commercial films like Dan In Real Life & Godzilla. 
Chloe Moretz also plays a character in Clouds ("Jo-Ann Ellis") that's somewhat similar to her real self - a young up & coming actress that's mostly known for popular studio films & tween movies (as we all know, Moretz is known for her roles in films like 500 Days Of Summer, Kickass and the recent Carrie remake).
The only (main) actress in Clouds Of Sils Maria that doesn't play a fictionalized version of her real self is Kristen Stewart. Instead, she plays Maria's dedicated personal assistant "Valentine". Valentine does more than just fetch coffee and set-up interviews for Maria. They have a bond with each other. They travel together, know each other in & out and are friends on some level. A large majority of Clouds focuses on the unique relationship between Maria & Valentine. They're spiritually connected in the same way "Betty" (Naomi Watts) & "Diane" (Laura Herring) were in Mulholland Drive or "Alma" (Bibi Anderson) & "Elisabet" (Liv Ullman) in Persona. In the opening scene of Clouds Of Sils Maria we're actually introduced to Maria through Valentine...

The film starts with Maria on her way to Switzerland to accept an award on behalf of her mentor and frequent collaborator; "Wilhelm Melchior" - a legendary author, playwright & filmmaker (Maria & Wilhelm are not only frequent collaborators in both film & theater, but they've been close personal friends for more than two decades). Naturally Maria is making this journey with her assistant Valentine who spends her time juggling calls and fanning fires so Maria can rest and get away from Hollywood for a few days. However Wilhelm unexpectedly passes away right before the award ceremony.
In addition to dealing with the loss of her friend/mentor, Maria is going through an ugly divorce, she's prepping for her latest role and is also having a difficult time aging (she becomes fascinated by her younger co-star Jo-Ann who will be reviving a role that Maria played when she was 18). All of this obviously makes her insecure & vulnerable and for the rest of the film we watch Maria try to hold it together (imagine a more toned down version of Black Swan with elements of Cassavetes' Opening Night).

There are already multiple layers to Clouds Of Sils Maria within the first 10-15 minutes but that doesn't stop Assayas from adding on as the film progresses. Some of you that aren't too familiar with (modern) French cinema may not catch this, but the (fictitious) relationship between Maria and Wilhelm is very similar to the (real) relationship between actress Sandrine Bonnaire & director Maurice Pialat. Both relationships revolve around the mentorship/frequent collaborations between an older director/father figure and a younger actress. In interviews, Sandrine, who acted in three of Pialat's best films, said she always looked at him like a father figure. In Clouds, Maria never mentions her actual father, but she always speaks of Wilhelm as if he's her actual father.
Sandrine Bonnaire & Maurice Pialat in A Nos Amours

Not that it takes away from the film, but being a cinephile/movie nerd makes this even more enjoyable (just read back the wide range of movies I was able to name-drop through the course of this review). If you have a wide appreciation for all aspects of cinema you'll more than likely fall in love with Clouds Of Sils Maria as there's references to the X-Men films & Harrison Ford to experimental arthouse cinema.

The theme of "the aging actress" in Clouds Of Sils Maria also serves as a nice companion to Patricia Arquette's journey that many of us followed last year with Boyhood. Little bits of reality seeping in to fictional stories seems to be the theme in 2015 so far. This is obviously something a few filmmakers touched on last year with Birdman, Top 5 & Chef, but it's even more prominent this year. Besides Clouds Of Sils Maria & Portrait Of The Artist, I felt that Gerard Depardieu put real pieces of himself in to the character he played in Welcome To New York. And personally, I thought Viggo Mortensen's role in Jauja was an existential look at aging as well as a callback to all the physically demanding roles that brought him to prominence in the last 14 years or so (A History Of Violence, The Road, Hidalgo, Eastern Promises, LOTR). As an actor in his mid/late 50's, I'm not sure how many naturally physically demanding roles he has left in him without the help of CGI, lots of editing (like in the case of The Expendables) or extensive stunt double work (not to say those things haven't already been incorporated in some of Viggo's performances, but everything he does physically in front of the camera feels like it's all him).

I also found it peculiar that even though Clouds is partially about aging women in film, the (aging) character Binoche plays is actually 11 years younger than she is in real life (Maria is 40 while Binoche is really 51). I don't think Assayas is sexist or has something against older actresses like so many other filmmakers & producers in the movie biz (in fact, I think he's trying to call a lot of those sexist issues out) but it's still interesting that even though his latest film is about aging gracefully, the lead actress still had to portray a younger age.

Style-wise, Clouds Of Sils Maria feels like an extension of the obvious Irma Vep, but it also feels like Assayas combined the ambiance from his chaotic films (Demonlover, Boarding Gate & Carlos) with his more subtle/toned-down work (Summer Hours, Late August Early September & Something In The Air). He also incorporates some interesting editing techniques that I've never seen him use before. Some of the transitions between scenes slowly blend in to one another like in Kubrick's The Shining or Todd Haynes' Safe. Then other moments end abruptly out of nowhere almost in mid-conversation. And like the second half of Demonlover & Irma Vep, there are elements within Clouds Of Sils Maria that make absolutely no sense but for some reason we kind of accept it (like the sudden disappearance of one of the main billed characters 3/4 in to the movie).
It shouldn't go unmentioned how surprisingly good Kristen Stewart is in this. Yes, I can be a judgemental snob at times. When I heard that Kristen Stewart (and Chloe Moretz) were going to costar in Assayas' latest film I turned my nose up in suspicion. But I'm willing to admit when I'm wrong. She, along with Moretz, did a fine job.

I'm writing this review after having seen this movie less 48 hours ago so my thoughts could be a little tainted. Maybe I'm just excited having watched one of the few films from this year so far that wasn't lackluster, underwhelming or just "ok", but Olivier Assayas, along with Mike Leigh, might be my two personal favorite filmmakers working right now. For a while it used to be Denis & Haneke, but between Bastard (which I still like, but is a bit of a head-scratcher, and not for entirely good reasons) and Amour (which I've been losing excitement for over the last three years), I'm a little conflicted with their work. I like that Michael Haneke made Amour because I wasn't sure if he actually had a heart, and Bastards was kind of a return to Claire Denis' more aggressive side that I hadn't seen since Trouble Every Day. But I haven't felt the urge to revisit either of those films. Assayas (and Leigh) never leave me completely disappointed or feeling empty. Even Assayas' recent films that I'm conflicted about (Carlos) or not totally in love with (Something In The Air) still leave me with plenty to talk about.
Clouds Of Sils Maria is a multi-layered journey about aging, cinema & identity that's both unique & slightly original as well as a callback to some of the films I've already mentioned (Mulholland Drive, Persona, Irma Vep, Demonlover, etc).

Now that Assayas has worked with even more known/"mainstream" actresses in a successful film, perhaps this will open the door for Assayas to make even more mainstream/studio films in the U.S. (he received a golden globe nomination with Carlos and between Demonlover & Boarding Gate, he's worked with more universally known actors like Michael Madsen, Chloe Sevigny and even Gina Gershon for whatever that's worth). Not that it matters as Olivier Assayas is already an accomplished director, but mainstream American cinema could use a director like Assayas to add some variety to the mostly stale pot that we have today.


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