September 5, 2014

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto 2014 Review: “Clouds of Sils Maria”


CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA (IFC):  no release date scheduled – Watch It At Home

Olivier Assayas is a dazzlingly ambitious filmmaker, determined to do something totally different with each project he undertakes.  The results range from the spectacular (Carlos) to the tone-deaf (Demonlover), with his new CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA, which premiered at Cannes before screening this week at the Toronto Film Festival, somewhere in between.

Clouds is constructed as a hall of art-movie mirrors, packed with references to signature works of other filmmakers.  Its central relationship is an echo of the one in Bergman’s Persona, depicting the emotional intimacy between the troubled middle-aged actress Maria (Juliette Binoche) and her personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart), with much of the action confined to the pair of them in a remote house.  Maria has been asked to return to the play that made her a star, one which recalls Fassbender’s The Bitter Tears of Petra van Kant, about a successful businesswoman who ruins her life through her disastrous love for a female employee–except that she had begun her career 20 years earlier playing the young woman, and is now faced with playing the older one, with starlet Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz) in the role she’d originated.  (Another level of the film’s life versus art gamesmanship is that Binoche in fact had one of her earliest hits almost 30 years ago in Rendez-Vous, which Assayas co-wrote.)   A later plot turn provides a reference to Antonioni.  On top of all this, there is a metaphoric thread running through the story about the titular clouds of Sils Maria, a sinuous mist that winds like a river through a Swiss mountain range; Marie’s house is located in that area, and the play she is to perform is named after those clouds.

With such a complex superstructure, perhaps it’s not surprising that Clouds of Sils Maria often feels like an airless exercise, more devoted to piling on graduate seminar credentials than in telling a story.  (When Assayas briefly attempts to duplicate or satirize contemporary blockbusters–it’s unclear–the effect is supercilious and inept.)  Everything in the film is left unresolved and ultimately hollow, a series of baubles that provide fascination and frustration.  Clouds lacks the playfulness and romance of Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, another film festival two-hander that starred Binoche and played with notions of identity, art and reality.

Until one loses patience with it, though, there’s a great deal in Clouds that’s admirable.  Most notable are the performances by Binoche and Stewart.  Binoche dives under the skin of being an insecure, aging actress with a fearless lack of vanity and an constant ability to unearth new shards of personality.  Stewart, seemingly much more comfortable now that she’s out of her own blockbuster perch in Hollywood, matches Binoche move for move with sharp intelligence, although in the end Assayas refuses to give Valentine a coherent character.  Moretz is also strong in her much smaller turn as Marie’s co-star to-be, but her role is even more fragmentary.

Clouds of Sils Maria is beautifully composed, with artful photography by Yorick Le Saux and a score that makes generous use of classical selections (especially, none too subtly, Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”).   As carefully as it’s been executed, though, Clouds also feels unfinished and undercooked.  Assayas, happily, is already working on his next film, which will almost certainly take him into yet another new direction.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."