PFF23: Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, FRA/USA)

A mildly incisive deconstruction of an aging actress, Clouds of Sils Maria follows Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) as she reluctantly assumes the role of her career breakout character’s foil in an onstage production of Maloja Snake. Starring alongside a troubled upstart decades her junior, Maria and assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) navigate the days and weeks leading up to opening night, all the while confronted with a considerable amount of existential hurdles. Cross-generational discord soon rears its ugly head, what with Maria’s unending cynicism straining her bond with Valentine and general sense of self.

Set primarily in and around the titular Alps retreat, Clouds builds an apt enough parallel to our celebrity-saturated culture with ease, if only to intermittently offer valuable insight beyond what we’re already familiar with. The picture of seasoned elegance on one hand, the drug-obsessed byproduct of the post-adolescent A-List on the other – the line between them is bluntly drawn as the former’s criticisms of the latter remain unavoidably banal. Regardless, Assayas incorporates such an element to merely aid in Maria’s slow burning catharsis to varying degrees of effectiveness.

On the contrary, the interplay between Maria and Stewart’s Valentine is what rings most perceptive despite the film’s lax structure. Through repeated line readings, exchanges of opinion and the like, Maria’s worsening identity crisis in the face of personal loss and Hollywood’s decline becomes reasonably involving. Unfortunately, said dialogue-heavy ruminations run their course as thematic redundancy detracts from the film’s minimal strong suits.

With this in mind, Clouds of Sils Maria is steadfast only in the realm of presentation, what with a wholly unique setting lending itself wonderfully to an often arresting visual prowess. While its central character’s struggle is timely and evokes a mere semblance of empathy, Assayas’ latest ends up feeling a bit long-winded and ineffectual as Maria’s waning, all-encompassing complacency takes too long in amounting to an appropriate if predictable crux. Familiar and pseudo-poetic in scope, Clouds of Sils Maria boasts excellent performances and above average intuition despite its oppressively plodding framework.


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