On Clouds of Sils Maria

written and directed by Olivier Assayas, starring Juliet Binoche and Kristen Stewart.

A very good movie about an aging actress, Maria (Binoche), and her personal assistant, Val (Stewart), who have their ups and downs as Maria prepares for a stage role in a play she first performed in twenty years earlier. Then she played the conniving and even cruel young bitch, now she is to play the mature, knowing woman. It’s all seriously meta, but the problem is that Maria can’t quite see through to that, preferring to see both Val and Joanne (Chloë Grace Moretz) as the ingénue she can’t admit she might have been—something like Irene Papas as Elektra in the 1962 and then Klytaimnistra in the 1977.

The first thing that needs to be said is that Kristen Stewart gave an amazing performance, and though I doubt I’ve seen the films for which the other actresses were nominated nominated, she has to have deserved the César award that she won in France. See the movie just to see her. I’m not a Binoche-hater, but Stewart stole every scene they shared and then some. Not to give too much away, but when she’s not on the screen, the movie seems to go seriously wrong.

The second thing I’ll note is that is that the movie is built on a decent premise (the actress and her PA practicing for a play that pretty accurately depicts their current real-life circumstances), but still and all seems awfully obvious at times. I can’t help but wonder that it would have been helped along if there was just one line spoken by either actress acknowledging the strange roles which they find themselves playing. Would that have seemed to obvious? Maybe, but it’s so obvious already that by not mentioning the obvious parallels both women seem impossibly or at least unlike-ily unprepared for the problems they experience.

Another thing I’ll note is that Assayas has made decisions with his direction that are sometimes questionable, sometimes just plain lousy. The just plain lousy includes a driving scene (Kristen Stewart, through the Alps) in which time and travel are emphasized by means of double exposures alternating between close-ups of the driver and the car in a fog … the whole thing is right out of TV series episode from the 50s. Also not so hot are shots of some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, the Swiss Alps, included in a series of postcard-like profiles that seem completely listless. The best shots were borrowed, black and white archival footage from a documentary eighty or more years old.

Still another thing I’ll add is that there are more threads left hanging than I can see on my ten year old shirts. What happened to the actor with whom Maria first shared the stage years before? What about the piece of paper she handed him as he was stepping out of the limo? What about the wife of the deceased playwright? What exactly happened between Val and her boyfriend? At times it’s all fairly frustrating, but for all that I still enjoyed it, a lot. It might be the meta aspect of it all, even if I wasn’t sure what to make of it at the end, and it might have been the many good choices I think Assayas made (matter of fact portrayals of technology such as phones and ipods, as well as the new media, plenty of Girardian perspectives on desire, unfussy dissolves between scenes) … and of course that Stewart performance was just excellent. See it to see her, as well as a fine story and some tired old shots of the Alps.


  1. It’s sounds like it’s all about the Eve…

    Is it teenage-daughter-friendly fare?


    • Whoops, just saw the trailer – not sure homoerotic/psychosexual is the best thing for young minds – but at least we know KS wears thongs.

      There is that.

      Still – looks intriguing in its own way – but it also seems, from the trailer anyway, to be missing its George Sanders character – that fulcrum from which to balance and weigh the moral rudder of the film…. That might be the missing part that makes it too “obvious” (think of Han Solo in a completely different context serving the same purpose – the cynic who is every audience member being asked to believe an ethos/mythos as such).

      • Yes, there is something about Eve to all of this, but as for moral rudders, I think one of the Sils Maria’s themes is that aesthetics can, should and do change with the times. The attention isn’t so much on morals (after all, the playwright kills himself, KS wears a thong, and the lesbianism is out there enough that it’s the heterosexual relationships that seems subversively placed on the back burner) as it is on self-realization and the question of how you can achieve that at all while remaining on equitable terms with those around you, either on stage or on the stage of life.

        How do you find a moral fulcrum in such a nihilistic view of life and happiness? But that really is the world in which many of us live, and I thought Assayas did mostly a fine job of dramatizing that. But that might have something to do with why some of the scenes seem as stilted as they do. Or maybe I’m just looking at it all too closely.

        Thanks for commenting, all of yous.

        • “How do you find a moral fulcrum in such a nihilistic view of life and happiness?”

          File Under: Waugh Waugh Waugh…

  2. Big Jon Bully says

    Any movie can use George Sanders, especially Furious Seven.

    Good review, thanks. Although I’m not sure if homoerotic/psychosexual is good for MY mind.

    Thanks again.

  3. Broderick Barker says
    • Nice … that’s why some people are actually paid to write, boys and girls.

      Seriously though, I think you appreciated Binoche’s performance more than I did, initially anyway. Although I find myself convinced by your description. And watching her move from private scenes with KS to public interviews or the dinner with Chloe and her boyfriend really was a treat.

      I think one issue I had with the movie is that very similar material has simply been mastered by Kiarostami. Close-Up especially, but even Like Someone In Love has depths that Sils Maria hardly fathoms.

      I’ll add this … I think Assayas must have meant for us to feel the loss that Helena should feel for Val, but perhaps does not. I certainly felt it, and very keenly at that. My only hope was that Stewart stays true to her vision of Maria’s character in the play, Helena (yes, I got that wrong above, will change it now), so that she goes off and reinvents herself to achieve that greater self-realization I wrote of above.

  4. Big Jon Bully says

    RESOLVED: Clouds of Sils Maria is a good movie.

  5. Big Jon Bully says

    At least we’ve settled something around here. Everything is always so up-in-the-air.

  6. Big Jon Bully says

    Now we can move on to the next item.

  7. Well put, Mr. Finnegan. I concur on all points, and hadn’t considered the strange absence of self-awareness on the part of the characters’ similarities to the relationship of the characters in the play whose lines they’re running. It’s difficult to tell Assayas’ position on the Binoche character- shortsighted and woodenly stuck in her ways, or continually brilliant whilst struggling in a world no longer equipped to handle her? Stewart’s adroitness makes me lean toward the former, but the movie’s resolution seems to suggest the opposite. With a different third act this could really have been something more than it already is. Great viewing still though.

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