Sundance Selects

Reviewed for Shockya by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes.

Grade:  B+

Director:  Olivier Assayas

Screenwriter:  Olivier Assayas

Cast:  Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz

Screened at:  Review 1, NYC, 1/7/15

Opens:  April 10, 2015

Olivier Assayas, now sixty years old, has been in the film business since co-writing his first movie in 1985 at the age of thirty.  His contributions have included “Alice and Martin” about a young man who leaves his home town for Paris at the age of twenty and becomes a model (which he co-wrote with director André Téchiné at the age of forty-four) and my own favorite, “Demonlover,” at the age of forty-seven, about two corporations competing in the field of illicit manga pornography.  Now with “Clouds of Sils Maria,” one can hardly say that Assayas if washed up.  Far from it: as the cliché goes, he’s not getting older, he’s getting better.  But would young people think the same of the man who is now in his seventh decade of life?  This might have been one of the questions going through his mind as he took on the writing and directing of “Clouds of Sils Maria,” thematically about aging, and specifically about the anxieties of Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), a celebrated actress known largely for the role of Jo-Ann Ellis, who is the twenty-year-old assistant to a forty-year-old who runs an elaborate office.

Mirroring Ms Binoche herself, Assayas’s theatrical film ponders whether a person is “done,” ready for the trash heap, when she is no longer young, with this interesting twist: Maria Enders is now offered the role of the factory boss, who in the work known as “Maloja Snake” by Wilhelm Melchior, had fallen in love with her young assistant and simply disappeared, a possible suicide, when she is dumped by Ellis.

As essentially a two-hander that could turn off those in the audience who do not care for theater—a medium in which dialogue is generally emphasized to the minimization of physical action—Maria Enders and her assistant , Valentine (Kristen Stewart), are seen as a duo, knocking theories of aging back and forth, two of them feeling comfortable with each other.  Despite her living the life of the wealthy in Europe, saying in five-star hotels, traveling across the Alps by train, Val suffers a lack of privacy, an irritation that makes her take risks with her employer by stating what’s on her mind even if those matters are in contrast to theories held by Enders.  In the biggest clash, Maria and Val take in a 3-D superhero movie because the star is Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), who is to play alongside Maria on the London stage following rehearsals.  Val’s position is that this type of picture is the wave of the future, notwithstanding that both the young actress and the character she plays is a bimbo.  By contrast, Maria, who spends her time in the movie theater taking off and putting on her 3-D glasses, laughs in her face.

Maria, who despite her age still has the heart of a twenty-year-old, had been conflicted about taking on the role because she fears it will force her to face her mortality.  (The theory that older people have really not changed within but remain with the full memory of youth is true, by the way.)

As a splendid version of meta-fiction or meta-theater, which is to say the concept of fiction and real lives merging, the best scenes show Maria and her assistant rehearsing the play.  Often we are not sure which lines are in the play and which are those of Maria.  The differences between the confident assistant, who fields a bevy of cell phone calls, knowing her boss so well that she can tell which calls are important, and Maria, who is somewhat neurotic and indecisive, are played so naturally that the two never appear to be simply acting.  Val talks fast and in a monotone.  Maria is more deliberate and more excitable.  Things that Val might take with a grain of salt are upsetting to Maria, The give and take between these two splendid performers is at the heart of the movie.

Kristen Stewart, a twenty-four year old best known in these parts for her role as Bella Swan in the “Twilight” series, is quite comfortable in this deeper, more complex role while Paris-born Juliette Binoche at fifty and with an impressive résumé that includes such masterworks as “The English Patient,” “Chocolat” and “The Widow of Saint-Pierre” solidifies her reputation as an A-list actress wholly comfortable in French and English.

Unrated.  123 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+

Acting – A-

Technical – B+

Overall – B+


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By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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