I warn you: you must be patient when viewing Clouds of Sils Maria. At the screening I attended, I noticed a few walk outs mid-way through. I attribute this not to the quality of material but to the current climate of Hollywood movies where action, surprising plot turns, and fast, snappy dialogue have conditioned too many American movie goers to be bored with anything less.
I say American movie goers because Clouds of Sils Maria has been very well received in Europe where it has won numerous awards, including a nomination for the Palmes d’Or at Cannes. The movie releases generally in the United States on April 17, and it will be interesting to see how it is viewed by American audiences as compared to Birdman, to which it bares striking similarities.
Like Birdman, Clouds of Sils Maria depicts an aging star taking on a controversial role. In the case of the latter, Juliette Binoche plays Maria Enders whose career was launched many years prior when she played a famous role in a play-turned-movie. The part was that of a young seductress who wraps an older woman around her finger. Now, around the age of 40, Maria is asked to play the older, lovelorn woman opposite an up-and-comer—much like herself once upon a time. Maria retreats to a refuge in the Alps called Sils Maria with her assistant Val (Kristin Stewart) to study for the part. The movie, like Birdman, is less about the on stage play (though in Clouds the play is more relevant) and more about the players. We see how they struggle with fame, family, and the unique pressures that slump the shoulders of creative artists.
This is where the similarities end, in my opinion. Even though directed by a Mexican, Birdman is very much an American movie (while Clouds is European), with a slew of Academy Awards to boot. Though I enjoyed it, Birdman’s mise en scene borders on gimmickry with the near continuous tracking shots throughout, as well as a magical realism that felt sporadically forced (as opposed to the Felliniesque style which always left no doubt as to how the master viewed the cinematic universe). In addition, Birdman’s soundtrack is obtrusive, never letting you forget it’s there (most literally near the conclusion).
By contrast, Clouds of Sils Maria is a quiet, patient movie that doesn’t have to make its point with shiny objects. This, from my perspective, is one of its strengths, though for some it can be a drag (and certainly for those who walked out half way through). Perhaps like a Russian novel, you have to force yourself to get through some parts, but this to me is a virtue rather than a weakness.
The framing, lighting, and sound in Clouds are seamless, which leaves the viewer free to concentrate on the stifled life of the world famous Maria who bounces from cars to hotels to hideaways. Clouds offers the viewer bleak, alpine beauty and subtly contrasts her sequestered life with the open spaces of the mountains. Birdman hits you over the head with the visual metaphor of winding, claustrophobic spaces that comprise the theater’s off-stage world.
Clouds is also careful not to plunge its lead into the cliché of the troubled, erratic prima dona. To be sure, Maria has her share of personal drama, but she handles it with grace and always seems to battle through. The craziness is reserved for her younger co-star, who is only now learning to deal with life in the spotlight—while Maria has matured and mellowed. That is, she doesn’t need to shoot her nose off or jump out a window –a la Birdman—to deal with success or failure. It’s not as exciting or jaw dropping, but ultimately it feels more natural and satisfying.
I don’t think Clouds will enjoy the same success that Birdman did, and that is perhaps a reflection of many things. But it does offer an interesting comparison between European and Hollywood filmmaking, not to mention marketing, demographics, and cultural expectations.
Directed by: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloe Grace Moretz
Running Time: 123 minutes