With our celebrity/gossip culture more powerful, invasive, and ubiquitous than it's ever been in history, it's easy to think that famous actors are simply spoiled troublemakers who make vast fortunes based on their looks and playing pretend in often crummy projects so they can squander their millions through lawsuits, divorces, and entitled luxury. Kristen Stewart arguably fits this category, becoming Hollywood's highest-paid actress anchoring the ultra-popular (but much derided) Twilight series even as her personal life crumbled amidst evidence of infidelity.
But all that fame and gossip has made us forget that Stewart continues to be one of the best and most promising actresses of her generation, and the trappings of stardom can make us forget that giving a great performance requires great actors to prepare intelligently, thoughtfully, and intensively to examine every moment and motivation of a character's reality. An actor's preparation is one of the main subjects of the excellent Clouds of Sils Maria, where Stewart co-stars with the luminous Juliette Binoche in a film that reveals aspects of an actor's life few ever see.
Watch the trailer for Clouds of Sils Maria below:
One of the more surprising things I've learned working on the edges of the entertainment industry is that the whole endeavor is powered by a vast army of assistants (primarily comprised of young women and gay men) who are responsible for the majority of show business' inner workings. Stewart plays Valentine, one of these young multi-tasking cogs who is the assistant to Maria Enders (Binoche), a French movie star adjusting to the fact that she has aged into older roles. Maria's career started at eighteen when she was discovered by playwright and future mentor Willhelm Melchoir to play a lead role as a young woman named Sigrid who seduces and eventually destroys an older woman named Helena in his play and film Majola Snake.
As Maria and Valentine head to a tribute for Willhelm, they learn that he has died, turning the event into a memorial. Afterwards, as Maria grieves at Willhelm's home in the Swiss Alps, a renowned theater director (Lars Eidinger) approaches Maria to star in a new production of Majola Snake, but this time playing the older Helena while the role of young Sigrid Maria once played goes to a talented but troubled American actress, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), who has the talent and star power of a Jennifer Lawrence with the tabloid-magnet misbehavior of a Lindsay Lohan.
Clouds of Sils Maria -- which, incidentally, crushes the Bechdel Test -- is full of intelligent, humming dialogue delivered so naturalistically it's hard to believe it's scripted as the characters discuss the themes, motivations, and emotions of the characters in Majola Snake. Many of those discussions take place at Willhelm's chalet as Maria runs her lines with Valentine reading the part of Sigrid, where we see the emotionally taxing, even brutal work of preparing for a difficult role, which is made even more difficult by the fact that Maria, with her experience playing Sigrid, finds herself unable or unwilling to understand or find sympathy for Helena.
At the same time, we're given a fascinating insider's look at the 24-hour juggling act Valentine must perform as a personal assistant, acting as both manager and servant, subordinate and peer, facilitator and witness, friend and punching bag as Maria's inherent neediness as an actor makes her crave Valentine's attention and approval even as Valentine battles to earn Maria's respect, insisting that her insights about Jo-Ann, youth culture, the character of Helena, and the modern world of celebrity be taken seriously. For a sample, check out this great clip from Clouds of Sils Maria as Maria and Valentine, fresh from watching Jo-Ann's latest superhero blockbuster, discuss why Valentine considers Jo-Ann one of her favorite actors.
Clouds of Sils Maria, which can be surprisingly funny, is an acting master class, with Stewart and Binoche delivering nuanced, layered, Oscar-worthy performances that may well be the best of their respective careers. It's a film where French director Olivier Assayas doesn't seem to have even considered condescending or pandering to the audience, and instead filled the film with smart characters engaging in dense, intelligent, insightful conversations about subjects like art, mortality, acting, and empathy. The cinematography -- including beautiful vistas of the Alps and the cloud formation that Majola Snake is named for -- is exquisite, and the editing is top-notch, generating tension and intrigue as we watch the ping-pong exchange of words and observe the impact of each sentence rippling across the actors' expressive faces.
If you're interested in becoming an actor, Clouds of Sils Maria should be required viewing not only for its terrific performances, but its in-depth look at the art of acting and the challenges and rewards of attempting to immerse yourself in the lives of the characters you portray. And for everyone else, it's a real (and sadly rare) treat to see such a well-written, expertly-made movie led by such smart, strong, yet vulnerable female characters as they help you appreciate the impressive feats the actresses portraying them on the screen in front of you are achieving, moment by moment, before your very eyes.
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