For an unbeatable view of the Swiss Alps and their picture-perfect mountaintops see the “Clouds of Sils Maria.” This new film by French director Olivier Assayas (“Summer hours,” “Carlos”) shot entirely within the idyllic spreads of rural Switzerland puts in focus the coming undone of Maria Enders, an older actress (played by Juliette Binoche) who is confronted by her past when an actress half her age (Chloe Grace Moretz) is handed the role that made her famous twenty years earlier.
According to the film’s production material Enders was supposed to be a kind of modern Sofia Lauren, all glamour and aura. Binoche doesn’t really exude this, in films or in real life. She’s very French and does not typify glamour. Her personal assistant (played by Kristen Stewart) follows her loyally as she travels around Switzerland to pursue different projects, like paying tribute to a recently-departed filmmaker or practicing for the upcoming role in the Aloja Snake.
Assayas is clearly a superior filmmaker, no one can argue against this. Technically speaking, “Sils Maria” is textbook. The director drops clues sparingly along the way and achieves a great look, as always, for his film. Moreover, the story of “Sils Maria” had enormous potential, as well.
The idea of an older but celebrated actress faced with the prospect of her own fading star is pregnant with possibilities, especially in the rarefied atmosphere of Europe’s art world. But serious flaws conspire to make this film a failure on a grand scale, from casting errors to issues with the writing. Binoche doesn’t look the part, although she obviously gave her all to the performance, as would be expected from the consumate professional that she is. Kristen Stewart, one of the most uninteresting and overrated actresses of her generation is her usual underwhelming self. Her aloofness and pent-up irony made me wonder if Ms. Stewart doesn’t feel like she’s doing us a favor by appearing in the movies. Her performance as a P.A. growing more diffident as the film progresses is as one-dimensional as in films past (“On the road”). Granted, I’ve never been a fan of Kristen Stewart, since she has nothing to contribute to anything, but her performance here was again, as in previous films, narrow and muted.
The other big issue with “Sils Maria” is the writing. A little slow and meandering at first but heavy on exposition does the first part right. We are treated to a good deal of information and the relationship between Enders and her assistant is established. There’s a camaraderie between the two, Enders seeking approval from an assistant who keeps one-upping her by professing her admiration for another actress.
But as the production notes for the film have said, once Binoche finds out that some Lindsay Lohan-like ingenue (Chloe Grace Moretz) will have the role that made her famous when she was eighteen (and she will play the supporting, and much older, role) Enders was supposed to come undone. That was not shown effectively by Assayas. Instead, Binoche alternates between serenity and plays her characters with a certain quiet tension anyway but here, I could see no gradually descent into despair or contempt. There is the saying that goes, “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” and I saw no fury here. What is the ultimate in scornfulness? An aging woman’s flagship role being taken away from her, I should think? (in the movie, Maria Enders actually proposes to the director that she perform the same young role, a notion which is scoffed at by the director, obviously, who reminds her that she is much older now.)
This was not Assayas’s best film, by far, and it is reflected in all the predictions that have been flying across the web all day today. Will the jury prove us wrong at tonight’s prize-giving ceremony?