An ageing successful actress, Maria (Juliette Binoche) travels to Switzerland to accept an award on behalf of the reclusive playwright, Wilhelm Melchior, who gave her her big break. But matters are complicated when it is discovered that Melchior, loosely based on Rainer Werner Fassbinder, has died and the acceptance speech has to become a kind of eulogy. While at the ceremony, Maria is persuaded to star in that two-hander play once again, but this time in the older role of Helena rather than the younger role of the seductive Sigrid. She practices the role with her loyal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) at the beautiful mountainside home of Wilhelm's widow. This role reversal, with Maria forced to play her age, and Valentine transformed from PA into sexually powerful Sigrid, throws up all sorts of conflicts and echoes. This is most mischeviously played out in the character of Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz) - a wild child starlet who, in echoes of Kristen Stewart's own life - has slept with her director.
We never know whether the dialogue in this film is from the play or the film - whether the concerns about ageing belong to Maria or Juliette - whether the concerns over direction belong to Kristen or Valentine. It plays as less of a plot-driven movie than as a multi-layered intriguing discourse on life and cinema. Here are some of the strands that run through the film: the corrosion of modern internet culture, the quest for social isolation, the dangers of achieving it, mystery, suicide, obsessive love, ageing, the merging of real life with art, layering personas....
The resulting film is beautifully filmed and acted. Central to the film and the play within it is the phenomenon of the Maloja Snake - the titular clouds of Sils Maria that gather in the valley between the mountains enveloping the watcher in a fairytale enchantment. This is absolutely perfect for the dreamlike, slippery quality created by writer, director Olivier Assays (CARLOS, IRMA VEP). There is a mystery at the end of the film that isn't, cannot be solved definitively. But the whole film is, in a sense, a mystery and also something of a masterpiece.
CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA has a running time of 124 minutes and is rated R. The film played Cannes and Toronto 2014. It was released last year in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Finland, Iraq, Lebanon, Russia, Estonia, Italy, Mexico, Romania, Taiwan, Slovenia, Germany, South Korea, Austria and Turkey, It was released earlier this year in Hungary, Brazil, Uruguay, Hong Kong, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Norway, Portugal, New Zealand, Poland, Argentina, Canada and the USA. The film is currently on release in Australia, Greece, the UK and Ireland. It goes on release in Spain on June 12th.
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