Clouds of Sils Maria Movie Review

Clouds of Sils Maria is an intricately conceived rumination on the passage of time, ageing, being female, being famous, and for that matter, being gradually becoming obsolete. The newest film from the prominent, Paris born, French director Olivier Assayas, it was nominated for numerous awards at film festivals, including the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014. I watched it at TIFF last September, and gladly again at the indie theatre when the film came to our city a few months ago.

Clouds of Sils Maria

A middle-aged celebrated screen and stage actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is on a train to Zurich with her personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) to attend a tribute to the playwright Wilhelm Melchior, who had cast her in her breakout role in one of his plays Maloja Snake some twenty years ago. At that time, Maria played a manipulative young office girl Sigrid who had an emotive relationship with her older office boss Helena, driving her to commit suicide.

While on the train to Zurich, Maria gets the news that Melchior has died, an apparent suicide due to a terminal illness. When arriving Switzerland, Melchior’s widow Rosa (Angela Winkler) lets Maria and Valentine stay in her idyllic house in the Swiss Alps, in the Sils Maria locale, while she tries to get away from the sad memories of her late husband. In that serene natural setting, Valentine helps Maria practice her lines for a revival of the play Maloja Snake, re-mounted as a tribute to the late playwright. But this time, Maria is to play the older character Helena, while a wildly popular, scandalous young star Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz, the rising star in real life) is to play Sigrid.

If you have the patience to read up to here, you likely can see the parallels: Maria and Valentine – Helena and Sigrid, as well you probably can guess the feelings Maria goes through in this role reversal, for now she is twenty plus years older, and the loss of Melchior could well be the foreshadow of an imminent path everyone has to trod, famous or not. The film is an intricately woven, multi-layered construct, with thought-provoking dialogues and incisive subtexts; the mirroring effect is brilliant especially the scenes when Valentine helps Maria practice her lines and accept the role reversal, from the young to the older.

If you appreciate the characterization and the superb performance of the actresses, you would not only bear with but savour the complexity of the dialogues and scenes. Instead of a litmus test for the viewer’s patience, the complications and layered meaning are a testament of some fine screenwriting and directing. Assayas’ signature realism and naturalistic style works marvellously well; in some scenes towards the end, the honesty is harsh and biting. 

Juliette Binoche always delivers. Here she is an ageing celebrity and star, her outward coolness masks tumultuous insecurities. She is totally natural in her role. Viewers may even feel she’s not acting at all.

But my highest praise has to go to Kristen Stewart. I admit I’m probably one of the few who have not watched, or read, any of the Twilight movies or books. So this is my first Stewart film, and I’m most impressed. She lives and breathes her character Valentine, assistant to Maria Enders. From juggling several smart phones while balancing herself on a moving train, to helping Maria practice her lines adjusting to the older role, Stewart has shown she has mastered the needed nuance, intelligence and sensitivity for her character. She has portrayed convincingly a complex female who, despite her efficiency and strength at her job as assistant to a famous but fast fading star, is herself vulnerable as a female with deep, inner yearnings and conflicts muffled only by her outward sensibility.

With her role as Valentine, Stewart went on to win the 2015 César Award for Best Supporting Actress this February in Paris, the first American actress to win the prestigious French acting award which is equivalent to the Oscar here.

Chloë Grace Moretz aptly plays the youthful, and bratty, rising star Jo-Ann Ellis. She embodies the young and famous, a celeb whom Valentine admires, but whom Maria can never understand as to how the young measures talent or shoots to the peak of popularity despite (or maybe because) of scandals. I’m sure what’s mind boggling to her could well be the thoughts in many a mind of the, alas, fading bunch of old school, superbly trained actors and iconic performers of our days.

The Largo from George Frideric Handel’s opera Serse is poignant, a solemn and grand diction of existential angst as Maria confronts the loss of her beloved and respected artistic mentor, and her own fading glory. Interestingly, the music reminds me of Kon Ichikawa’s The Makioka Sisters (1983), wherein this piece of music also appears, bringing out the poignancy of the passage of time, the erosion of the familiar, the end of an era, of traditions, and of treasured values.

This brings us to the very title of the film. The clouds of the Sils Maria mountain range in the Swiss Alps is famous for their sudden appearance like a snake curling and weaving around the mountains. Many have climbed the peaks only to be disappointed as the clouds may not appear while they are there. In the scene towards the end, just as Maria turns and walks away, the clouds come into view for us audience but not her, indeed, like a snake slithers silently in and in a few seconds, moves out of sight again. Ah… the ephemeral of it all. The ultimate mirroring of nature and life.

Probably the best film I’ve seen so far this year. A film that deserves – and requires – multiple viewings.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples


This is my last entry to Paris in July 2015 blogging event hosted by Tamara of Thyme for Tea.

Paris in July 2015 Icon***

Other Related Ripple Effects Posts:

Conversation with Juliette Binoche

Summer Hours by Olivier Assayas

My Old Lady 

Suite Française: From Book to Film

Flight of the Red Balloon 

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

16 thoughts on “Clouds of Sils Maria Movie Review”

  1. Un film émou­vant et sensible. A mi-chemin entre le huis clos et le film de montagne à la photo spectaculaire. Superbe variation autour des thèmes du métier de comédienne, du temps qui passe et des relations professionnelles…
    Ce film est un bijou.


  2. So glad to see a review on here of this movie. We were trying to find something to watch the other night and this was on more than one list. Thanks for the insight! Will do a look-see this weekend! 🙂


    1. Denise,

      Go for it if it ever comes to your area… maybe a couple of times. My feeling is… sitting through it once isn’t enough. Hope you enjoy it.


  3. I’ve heard so many great things about this film and Stewart’s acting in it – glad to see you agree. Sounds quite interesting – definitely something I would enjoy. Great post! Thanks!!


  4. So glad that you found this film compelling and worth your time. The NYT review was quite good and as you said, Binoche never disappoints. Of course, we won’t see it here unless it turns up on a film festival. I really DO have to get netflix. Definitely sounds like one I would like. But I’m also seeing other posts to catch up on — and I know I am going to be wild about at least one, maybe both, of those! Can you guess?


    1. Jeanie,

      I sure hope you’ll have a chance to catch this one on the big screen. I’m not sure about the U.S. Netflix, which I’m sure carries many more selections. This film hasn’t come out on our Netflix yet. And yes, I can guess my other Paris in July entries just might pique your interest as well. 😉


    1. Lisbeth,

      Thanks for stopping by the pond. Hope you’ll be able to catch this. Do come back and share with us your thoughts after you’ve seen it… throwing in your two pebbles and make some ripples. 😉


  5. Oh this sounds delicious! I have not read or watched Twilight either and has no idea that Stewart could actually act. I’m glad she can and I will definitely keep this on my list of movies to watch!


    1. Stefanie,

      She’s good here doesn’t mean she’s good in all other ones… and often the director and script are main factors. But at least we know she can deliver. Having said that, it doesn’t mean I’ll go grab the Twilight sagas. But, am glad that KS has a few upcoming projects, one working with the same director Olivier Assayas. Now that one I’ll be sure to look out for in 2016.


  6. I had no idea what Twilight was about, or who Kristen Stewart might be. That aside, this sounds like a wholly wonderful film, and one that I’d be willing to watch. Your review makes clear that it has substance, as well as entertainment value, and those are the films I most enjoy. Thanks for the great review — I’m going to see if I can locte it somehow.


    1. Linda,

      We’re not in the target demographics of the Twilight sagas, books or movies. But this one is something that’s we could relate to, or at least, with sentiments we could appreciate. Anyway, it’s always a fresh, and very different feel to view European films; they are so removed from Hollywood productions. Another Assayas film you might be interested in is Summer Hours, my review here. Oh just found out you were the first commenter on that post, back in 2008. 😉


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