OTTAWA’S CINEMA FOR INTERNATIONAL AND INDEPENDENT MOVIES

Clouds Of Sils Maria

Winner - Best Supporting Actress 2014 César Awards (Kristen Stewart)

Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is a respected actress travelling by train to Sils Maria, in the heart of the Swiss Alps, to collect an award on behalf of a reclusive playwright friend. By her side is Valentine (Kristen Stewart), her smart and devoted personal assistant, who coolly juggles mobile phone calls like flaming clubs.

Poster art for Clouds Of Sils MariaThe reclusive playwright wrote the play that made Maria a star in her early 20s: Maria played Sigrid, a young temptress who seduces then abandons Helena, her older female boss. (The play is called 'Maloja Snake', although it’s effectively a stage version of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1972 film The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant.)

Now a revival performance is planned for London, with Maria taking the older woman’s part. Young  Sigrid is to be played by Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), a wildly popular young actress who trails scandal behind her and whose latest superhero film is going nuclear.

Making the transition from bewitcher to bewitched is difficult for Maria, and ties in with her fears of growing older and working in an industry she no longer fully understands. What’s more, the play no longer seems as exciting or convincing as it did 20 years ago. ‘I’m Sigrid, and I want to stay Sigrid,’ she says. But that’s not the direction in which life and show business run.

As Maria and Valentine hike around the pristine mountains, rehearsing lines from the play, you realize that, consciously or otherwise, Maria’s entire life has been shaped by that breakout role. She’s single, and her and Valentine’s working relationship is incredibly close: at one point, taking a break from rehearsal, they strip off and frolic in a river like lovers, and spend their evenings smoking and swapping industry gossip.

Assayas’s crisp and thoughtful script brilliantly blurs the lines between life and play. He often drops in on scenes mid-rehearsal, and it takes you a few seconds to realise that Maria and Valentine’s ‘conversation’ isn’t to be taken at face value.

There’s smart, enjoyable commentary about the current state of film acting, too: Maria turns down a role in the new X-Men film because she’s ‘sick of hanging from wires and working in front of green-screens’, while a trip to the cinema to see Jo-Ann’s latest film leads into a wincingly accurate parody.

Binoche plays the role with elegance and melancholic wit, but it’s Stewart who really shines here. Valentine is probably her best role to date: she’s sharp and subtle, knowable and then suddenly distant, and a late, surprising twist is handled with a brilliant lightness of touch.

Slyly, Assayas stages the film with an intentional staginess: even natural conversations have the ring of written dialogue, and he ends every scene with a theatrical fade to black. This is a complex, bewitching and melancholy drama, another fearlessly intelligent film from Assayas.

– Robbie Collin, The Daily Telegraph

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