By Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood May 23, 2014 at 11:58AM
Olivier Assayas' "Clouds of Sils Maria" was one of the final competition titles to bow at Cannes 2014, and it seems the festivals programmers were saving a goodie -- if not the best -- for last.
Reviews are upbeat if not through-the-roof for this tale of an aging actress (Juliet Binoche) who is confronted with a reality of her industry: She is asked to return to the play that launched her to stardom twenty years earlier, but not to the same role. Instead, a much younger actress (Chloe Grace Moretz) snaps it up, while Binoche is cast in an entirely different part. Kristen Stewart plays Binoche's personal assistant.
Sils Maria is the remote region in the Alps where Binoche and Stewart retreat to begin rehearsals for the new role.
With the exception of the Playlist, critics applaud the sharp performances of the three leads, and also the handling of the central theme: that art is of supreme importance, but it's also a fickle thing.
French director Olivier Assayas likes his leading ladies unpredictable and punk, crafting wild pipe-bomb thrillers to suit the feral energy of muses such as Maggie Cheung (“Irma Vep”), Chloe Sevigny (“Demonlover”) and Asia Argento (“Boarding Gate”). But does he really understand women? After collaborating with Assayas on 2008’s perfect, albeit ultra-safe “Summer Hours,” actress Juliette Binoche challenged the director to write a part that delved into genuine female experience. Though deceptively casual on its surface, “Clouds of Sils Maria” marks his daring rejoinder, a multi-layered, femme-driven meta-fiction that pushes all involved — including next-gen starlets Kristen Stewart and Chloe Grace Moretz — to new heights.
Art is the ultimate achievement, says Olivier Assayas's meta-drama with Juliette Binoche as an ageing star, Kristen Stewart her PA and Chloë Grace Moretz the younger model – and it's nearly brilliant enough to convince us.
Some smartypantses will no doubt pull the old “But it’s meta, see so it’s all meant to feel artificial and unreal and contrived.” And maybe it is, maybe Assayas has such a highly developed sense of irony that he has made a not-very-good film to hyper-comment on the nature of not-very-good art. In which case, bully for him, it’s still a not-very-good film.
Assayas’s crisp and thoughtful script brilliantly blurs the lines between life and play. He often drops in on scenes mid-rehearsal, and it takes you a few seconds to realise that Maria and Valentine’s “conversation” isn’t to be taken at face value, while Jo-Ann’s entire scandal-hit life is presented as an ongoing performance, which Valentine keenly follows on show-biz blogs.
There’s smart, enjoyable commentary about the current state of film-acting, too: Maria turns down a role in the new X-Men film because she’s “sick of hanging from wires and working in front of green-screens”, while a trip to the cinema to see Jo-Ann’s latest film leads into a wincingly accurate superhero-film-within-a-film: Valentine watches rapt while Maria rolls her eyes over the top of her 3D goggles.
Binoche plays the role with elegance and melancholic wit...
Binoche and Stewart seem so natural and life-like that it would be tempting to suggest that they are playing characters very close to themselves. But this would also be denigrating and condescending, as if to suggest that they’re not really acting at all. Their give-and-take and the timing of their exchanges, particularly in the rehearsal sequences, is wonderfully fluid and non-theatrical; Binoche works in a more animated register, which makes Stewart’s habitual low-keyed style, which can border on the monotone, function as effectively underplayed contrast. Moretz is all high-keyed confidence.
Given its narrow range of concerns, Clouds of Sils Maria will be mostly of interest to aficionados of theater, acting and the notion of how real and fictional lives can blur to those involved.
I kinda love Clouds of Sils Maria. At it’s best, it is a female version of My Dinner With Andre. At it’s weakest, it is still interesting.