The performances of the mostly female cast of “Clouds of Sils Maria” simply cannot be ignored. Even when the plot slows and gets a bit redundant, I could not stop watching Juliette Binoche as a successful veteran actress and Kristen Stewart as her assistant and companion.
This is a story about an actress on her way to participate in an awards ceremony for the brilliant and reclusive writer and director who gave her her first big break. Sigrid, the character she portrayed, came to define not only her career but her own sense of self, and when she is asked to portray another character in that play — the older, doomed foil to the dynamic and exciting Sigrid — she faces a crisis.
The death of the playwright further confuses the issue for her, and she retreats, with her assistant, to his house in the Alps, to rehearse and consider things. Not surprisingly, Binoche is wonderful, loose and funny but also cerebral and insecure. It is a pleasant surprise, however, that Stewart is also wonderful, and the platonic chemistry between the two is absolutely the heart of this film.
This film basically concerns the two of them walking in gorgeous scenery and rehearsing and talking, and believe me their debates about Binoche’s character could have turned dreadfully dull. But in their hands, the material is incredibly realistic and compelling, and their visits to bars and casinos refreshing.
On another level, Binoche must face her feelings about the popular actress portraying Sigrid, a role about which she feels more than a little territorial. Of course, the young actress, played by Chloe Grace Moretz, is a mirror of the older one. But this relationship is given far less screen time then that between Binoche and Stewart.
There have been plenty of behind-the-scenes celebrity satires, but this story functions more like an “above the scenes” one. Realistic and subtle and occasionally quiet to a fault, it was interesting to consider both the universal concerns of aging and death, and the juicy celebrity scandals and Chanel fittings.
It was also wonderful to have Stewart in the bespectacled role of assistant, considering a popular young actress besieged by paparazzi. To have her explaining these matters to the old-fashioned Binoche functioned as a marvelous “meta” moment. Stewart became the first American actress to win a Cesar Award, the French equivalent of an Oscar, for her role, and she was truly interesting in this movie. She and Binoche were so fascinating and real as friends, with no flashy romance or even major conflicts to lean on.
“Clouds of Sils Maria” is a memorable character study fully realized by quietly incredible performances. Its slow pace was not boring, it was mesmerizing, and the plot gave the characters room to grow and maneuver. It’s a realistic portrayal of highly specialized lives that still managed to be relatable, recognizable and moving.