Director: Olivier Assayas
Screenplay: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz
Running Time: 123 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
Ask even the most casual of moviegoer who their favourite actors are and you’ll usually get some sort of response. It might be the obviously prestigious, their on-screen crush, someone who makes them laugh, or just someone they’ve seen a lot of. Actors, like films themselves, are easy for anyone to form an opinion on based purely on a visceral reaction influenced by their personal tastes. If a performance doesn’t ‘feel’ right to you, if you thought the way the actor delivered certain lines was unrealistic, or if you simply don’t buy the character, it can be easy to lean towards the idea that that actor is bad at their job.
Now, of course, an actor can be good or bad at a number of things; perhaps their facial expressions are much better than their line delivery, maybe they’re all charm, but no versatility. And all of this is not only dependent on each viewer’s subjective response, but any number of other factors to do with the individual film itself, from the director to the writer, editor, producer or even the chemistry with those sharing scenes. Compare the performances of the Star Wars prequels to those of its actors in Trainspotting, Black Swan, Pulp Fiction, for example.
All of which, in the context of Clouds of Sils Maria, brings us to the attention that Kristen Stewart has received for her performance. It can be hard to go into a film starring someone like her and not have some sort of preconception. There are those who have always maintained that she is nothing more than a ‘bad’ actress, but with this film there are those who have gone completely in the opposite direction, who are lavishing praise on her performance, and this includes the voters of France’s Césars who made her the first American actress to win an award.
This sort of reaction is nothing new. You see it often when a comedic actor does a ‘serious’ performance, such as Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love. Now, while I adore both of these movies, I personally would have rather seen a quote unquote proper actor in the leads. While I would say that both performances are, by far, the best I have seen from Carrey and Sandler, I still wouldn’t compare them favourably to merely decent performances from better actors.
With Kristen Stewart, the idea that she’s a ‘bad’ actress tends to stem from criticisms aimed at her being wooden, or looking bored, or something like that. But, honestly, I’ve never seen her in anything where I think she’s been bad. Her presence doesn’t take me out of a movie in the way that Leonardo DiCaprio’s or Keira Knightley’s does. She was fine in Adventureland, Panic Room and The Cake Eaters. And while I can’t, and won’t, defend Twilight, from the few clips I’ve seen (thank you, Honest Trailers) I can’t imagine anyone being able to do a good job in those films. By contrast, I thought Robert Pattinson was pretty darn awful in Cosmopolis, the one film I’ve seen him in. David Ehrlich described Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria as a “deadpan revelation”, a wonderful little description that goes some way to capturing how good she really is.
I do feel like her winning the César Award fits into that category of a very good performance that is inflated to excellent given the surprising nature of the actor in question completely surpassing expectations based on their previous work. But perhaps I’m simply overreacting to what constitutes an ‘award-winning’ performance. The phenomenal Film Crit Hulk (look him up if you haven’t already) often talks about how in award categories you could substitute the word ‘best’ for ‘most’. So, the films with the most editing, directing, writing etc will often win; those that are showy and noticeable in their given category. When you hear that an acting performance is ‘great’, often you expect something dramatic, something vibrant, something that jumps out of the screen in one way or another. This is not that. But be sure of one thing, Kristen Stewart is the best thing about this film, and this is a movie in which Juliet Binoche has been described as delivering a career-best performance. When Stewart isn’t on screen I want to see what she’s up to, hers is the life I’m interesting in, hers in the character I want to know more about.
This is all part and parcel of what Clouds of Sils Maria is all about. It’s about acting, about art reflecting life and life reflecting art, it’s about identity, perspective, and how our past and the passage of time define us.
Binoche plays Maria Enders, an esteemed actress of global renown, who is cast in a new staging of the play that launched her career, Malora’s Snake. Initially, she played the young Sigrid, but now, two decades on, she’s been asked to play the older character, Helena. With Kristen Stewart in tow as her assistant, Valentine, and Chloë Grace Moretz as Jo-Ann, the young actress now filling the role of Sigrid, the lines between fiction and reality begin to blur, as Maria struggles with inhabiting Helena’s skin, still seeing herself as Sigrid.
Every character in the film has a different perspective on the play, its characters, the writer’s intentions, and the multitude of reasons as to why an actor is drawn to or put off a role, or why that performance may or may not reflect them as a person are all explored throughout the film.
You’ll see elements of autobiography here too, the professional relationship between Binoche and Assayas is echoed in the film, and seeing Stewart defend how ‘wildchild’ Jo-Ann is portrayed on websites and in tabloids, you can imagine the actress revelling in the opportunity to have a wry sideswipe at her own critics. It’s all very, and I loathe to add to the overuse of the word in the last few years, meta. But at least it’s for a good cause, adding to the sense that art and performance, truth and real life, are intertwined.
Ultimately, the search for identity, the ‘truth’ of who we are is something that’s never completely knowable. As time passes, as we grow, we change, as we meet new people, take on new roles, we change. Memories fade, distort, and our own perception of who we are is different to how others see us. Each of us tries to play our role and express what we see as our ‘true’ selves as best as possible, and art is one of the ways in which we do it. Set against the backdrop of the Alps, something timeless, constant, seemingly unchanging, Clouds of Sils Maria lets us know that even they are subject to our own perceptions, that they will look different depending on where you stand, and when you stand there.
Assayas’ film delves into all of these ideas that leave us knowing that the answers to who we are, and how our pasts define us may be unknowable, but that’s not to say they aren’t questions worth asking. I said before that of all the characters Valentine was the one I wanted to know more about, my suspicion is that future rewatches of Clouds of Sils Maria might raise more questions than answers. But those are questions that I look forward to facing, and I’m fine knowing that they may have answers that I can never truly know.
Clouds of Sils Maria is available in the UK on DVD and Blu-Ray as of 27 July from Artificial Eye.
Extras: The disc is light on extras, but it’s not the sort of film you’d expect, or need, to find otherwise. The trailer serves simply as an example of how misleading some trailers can be, coming off more as a made-for-TV thriller that stole elements of Showgirls and Single White Female. But there’s also a 20-minute interview with Olivier Assayas which, while it doesn’t delve too deeply into the film itself, is a relatively interesting insight into how it came about and what his relationship is like with the actors.