“Clouds of Sils Maria” Review: Life, The Universe, and Comic Book Movies
Where to begin with a movie whose audacious subject is ourselves, particularly our casual cruelties, but also our capacity for discernment and change?
To start with, it is the kind of movie in which characters with thick continental accents debate the finer points of a twenty-year-old play. That description instantly loses most of the comic book movie crowd. If the film’s more natural audience, fans of cerebral arthouse cinema, find out beforehand that a comic book movie is nested within it, and that the script passionately and intelligently defends comic book movies, they might opt out as well. It would be everybody’s loss, because the movie’s position is that we are all better when we try to understand different people and assume intelligence on the part of others.
To describe the plot and characters seems almost beside the point, but the movie crafts them with a commitment to honesty that demands admiration. Juliette Binoche stars as an aging actress—it’s important that she’s aging—who once was a debutante starring in the big role in the twenty-year-old play. Kristen Stewart is her young—it’s important that she’s young—handler, the person who tells her “you have to do this” and “you don’t have to do this” about photo shoots and script offers. Of course, to be a celebrity is to have to do things. If you’re not in the public eye, you might as well not exist. That’s where Chloë Grace Moretz comes in. She’s the youngest, hottest Hollywood product, star of X-Men movies (the script uses the trademarked name, and refers markedly to real people like Lindsay Lohan and Harrison Ford). She is tapped to take over the juicy stage role that Binoche’s character played two decades before, and Binoche has to play opposite her as the older, less vibrant woman who falls in love with her.
But there is bleed-over from one character to another. Moretz’s ingenue is like Binoche’s character was in her youth: callous, drunk on her own raw charm, and almost eager to make mistakes. Stewart’s character is a stand-in for Moretz’s when Binoche’s needs to practice her lines for the revival of the play. If the younger women are less worldly than the older, less able to see the risks they are taking in their personal lives, they have a natural ability to understand the art of their generation. Binoche’s character is patronizing and dismissive about the movies that speak to them—superhero, spaceship, werewolf fare—and refuses to understand that serious themes can be addressed in radically different ways. Worse, she is jealous of her interpretation of her generation’s art, namely the play. When Stewart’s character refuses to subscribe to the orthodox interpretation of the text, arguing instead that each reader or audience member brings their own meaning to a work, Binoche rankles and makes Stewart feel embarrassed and unintelligent.
The characters might as well be the actors. The meta-ness of it all is evident in the transparent references to the real Stewart’s love affairs, the real Moretz’s roles, and the real Binoche’s aura of critical legitimacy. All are critiqued, even more harshly than are the paparazzi and the TMZ mentality that make them fodder for public dissection.
The structure of Clouds of Sils Maria is visible but brilliant. The foreshadowing is heavy, but it is split into two layers of text; the meaning of a given scene does not become apparent until its analog in the play is recited. A scene from the play, or a casual reference to its off-screen author, seems extraneous until the actresses parallel it in their own lives. Some might find this approach too “inside baseball” – actors talking to other actors about roles – but that misses the point: this is people talking to other people about the process of being.
I saw myself in at least one character. I was flattered, then ashamed. This movie captures the good and the bad, the maturity and the youth that coexist within us, if we are lucky. If we live in a just world, Clouds of Sils Maria will become a benchmark of film. If not, it will roll silently by like the clouds of the title, unseen by potential viewers who prejudge it, snobbishly and wrongly, as not for them.
Here are three similar movies it builds on and may even surpass.
Clouds of Sils Maria vs. All About Eve
All About Eve did not leave my mind during the screening of Sils Maria. Both films revolve around a script and an older actress feeling threatened by a young starlet. All About Eve is a classic I have enjoyed many times. It features razor-sharp writing from Joseph Mankiewicz and a timeless performance from Bette Davis. Yet it relies on a clear villain, or pair of villains, whereas Sils Maria conveys the same ideas while validating all viewpoints and condemning none of the principles. Though it lacks the luster of 65 years, I feel compelled to preempt the judgment of history and give Sils Maria the win.
Clouds of Sils Maria vs. Synecdoche, New York
A self-absorbed playwright loses touch with reality while trying to recreate his life on the stage. Synecdoche and its performances are more abstract, more high-concept, than Sils Maria’s, but they are products of a similar impulse to discuss life through the filter of theater. They each have a knack for creating real, complicated people, yet they both make their highly particular characters subservient to a universal message. Sils Maria is multipolar rather than dominated by a single performance, so it takes the match.
Clouds of Sils Maria vs. 8½
When talking about Synecdoche, New York, one is really talking about Federico Fellini’s 1963 Italian masterpiece 8½. The former is practically a remake of the latter, with the same blend of comedy and drama. Comedy is rarer, and perhaps even darker, in Sils Maria, which nearly meets its match against this feted Fellini. But I tend to prefer movies that highlight women, especially older women, because such works are all too rare. By inverting the conventional gender dynamics of 8½—dynamics which, it must be said, 8½ takes pains to critique against the backdrop of a sci-fi film shoot—Sils Maria becomes a new must-see, an update on a critical favorite. I’ll give it the win yet again and make a final call to action: see this movie.