Cannes: The Clouds of Sils Maria review

With shades of Bergman’s Persona and a nuanced line in pop culture dissection, Olivier AssayasThe Clouds of Sils Maria, is an intricately crafted and highly compelling drama.

In the opening scenes, Maria (Juliette Binoche), a well known and respected actress, is en route to collect an award on behalf of a good friend, Wilhelm Melchior. Melchior is the writer of a play named Maloja Snake, which was then made into a film starring Maria.

Maria is joined on this journey by her personal assistant and confident Val (Kristen Stewart). The relationship between these two women is the focus throughout, and it’s expertly established for us in these opening sequences.

Dialogue between the pair overlaps, is interrupted by calls and sometime even hangs in the air as the topics up for discussion change and segue. There is an incredibly natural feel to their interchanges that comes from a great script performed by two fine actresses.

Binoche has long been known to be remarkable actress and so it’s no surprise to see her in fine form, but Kristen Stewart is something of a revelation. Her previous work has tended towards the one-note, but here she delivers subtlety and range, going toe to toe with Binoche in their every scene. It’s no mean feat.

Whilst travelling on the train, the pair find out that Wilhelm Melchior has died. They continue on to the ceremony, and this is where Maria meets with a director who is keen to remake Maloja Snake.

Melchior’s play tells the story of two women, the older Helena and the younger Sigrid, who have an affair amidst a competitive business environment. Maria played Sigrid when she was twenty and it helped launch her career, but the new director wants her to play Helena in the remake. This is not something she will find it easy to come to terms with.

As Maria and Val read through lines for the play together it draws out their suppressed feelings. But this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the multi-layered art-life, life-art fabric that Assayas has woven.

Further sophistications ensue when we learn that the role of Sigrid will now be played by Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz), a young actress riding in on the success of a big budget superhero blockbuster, critical acclaim and and tabloid scandal. She’s racked up DUIs, provocative statements and an affair with a married man, all adding up to a character who is two parts Lindsay Lohan, one part Jennifer Lawrence and, most interestingly, one part Kristen Stewart.

Stewart’s own life provides rich subtext and becomes a compelling meta-narrative to accompany the central proceedings. There’s a scene in which Stewart, as Val, defends the underlying depth and emotional resonance in Ellis’ superhero movie that becomes an explicit reference to Stewarts’ work on Twilight.

The degree to which you find the extra-textual and meta-textual mischief in The Clouds of Sils Maria engaging and interesting will no doubt be the deciding factor in whether you find this film fascinating and deeply compelling or rather too on-the-nose and cute.

I fall in the former camp, for sure, and while I observed a few stumbles along the way, particularly from the inconsistent, struggling Moretz, I feel Assayas has managed to create a truly compelling weave of fact and fiction.