‘Clouds of Sils Maria’: Olivier Assayas’s latest is a masterpiece

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Months after seeing it at TIFF, I was thrilled to have the chance to review “Clouds of Sils Maria” for the Buffalo News. Here is my four-star review.

The mysterious, wondrous “Clouds of Sils Maria” finds three individuals – director Olivier Assayas and stars Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart – at the peak of their powers.

Surprised to see “Twilight” mega-star Stewart’s name in that company? Don’t be. While some scoff at her talk show appearances and vampire flicks, she has proven herself a more than capable performer in films like “Adventureland,” “The Runaways” and “Still Alice.”

But you have never seen her be as compelling, as enigmatic and as utterly relatable as she is in “Clouds of Sils Maria.” This performance deservedly earned her a Cesar Award (the French Oscars) for Best Supporting Actress, making Stewart the first American actress to win the award.

As Valentine, the cocky, wise-beyond-her-years assistant to a veteran actress, Stewart squares off with confidence against heavyweight co-star Binoche, whose Maria Enders is finding herself at a personal and professional crossroads.

As “Sils Maria” opens, Enders is on her way to present an award to her mentor, the author of a play (titled “Maloja Snake”) about the tragic relationships between a young upstart, Sigrid, and an older, successful businesswoman, Helena. She played Sigrid on stage and screen 20 years earlier, and the role made her a star.

Ironically, a hotshot director has asked Enders to star in a new stage version of “Maloja,” but as Helena. She is reluctant, but the death of the playwright causes her to reconsider.

To prepare, Enders, with the iPhone-and-BlackBerry-juggling Valentine in tow, decamps to the playwright’s home in Sils Maria, Switzerland. The duo begins a series of read-throughs and complex discussions about the play that seem to mirror their own relationship.

Soon, Enders learns who will star in the role she played to great acclaim two decades earlier. Enter Jo-Ann Ellis, a Lindsay Lohan-esque, recently sober drama queen played with winking relish by Chloë Grace Moretz.

She and Ellis meet, controversy about the young starlet makes international news, and Enders is forced to confront the harsh realities of life as a fading star. Throughout, she and Valentine continue to face off with increasing discomfort, and the line between script and reality blurs.

It all concludes with a series of strange, unsettling scenes against the stunning Swiss landscape. The film’s ambiguity may be problematic for some, but even viewers who expect a tidy conclusion should be swept up by the enchanting performances of Binoche and Stewart.

For Binoche, Maria Enders is an ideal role, and she brings to it the same combustible verve that made her work in such films as Krzysztof Kielowski’s “Blue,” Michael Haneke’s “Caché,” Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy” and Leos Carax’s “Lovers on the Bridge” so memorable.

The real revelation here, however, is Stewart. Hers is the most down-to-earth character on screen, and what resonates most strongly is her simultaneous confidence and vulnerability.

The depth and subtlety of this performance matches the assured direction of Olivier Assayas. “Sils Maria” certainly cements Assayas’ status as one of the preeminent filmmakers of his generation.

Consider that in recent years he has successfully helmed a multicharacter family drama (“Summer Hours”), crafted a TV miniseries about terrorist Carlos the Jackal (“Carlos”), and tackled a swirling, music-laden drama about the passions and politics of French students in the late ’60s and early ’70s, “Something in the Air.”

Four films, four masterpieces. And in its attention to character development and simmering emotional complexity, “Clouds of Sils Maria” is the best of the lot.

At the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, where “Clouds” made its North American debut, Assayas called the drama “a reflection on the past,” one written as an homage to Binoche. As Maria states near film’s end, “I think I’m lost in my memories.”

Rarely has a film about memory and its role in the creative process seemed so breathtakingly human. And rarely has one film featured performances as strong as those of Binoche and Stewart. Both deserve to be remembered when Oscar talk swirls.

Weekend Preview: Forget “Earth” — There’s “Something in the Air”

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Tomorrow is one of the oddest movie-opening Fridays of the summer, truly. It’s also one of the most boring.

There are few summer releases that look less alluring to me than the Will Smith-Jaden Smith vehicle “After Earth.” In fact, perhaps the only element to pique my interest is the invisibility of director M. Night Shyamalan in the film’s ad campaign. Considering “The Happening” and “The Last Airbender,” that’s probably wise, but I’m not sure what impact it will have at the box office. I’d expect this one to open in the low-thirties, probably ending up making a bit more than the similarly-themed “Oblivion” when all is said and done.

The real question is whether it will hit No. 1 this weekend. I would expect “Fast 6” to maintain its hold, and it is even possible (if unlikely — this is a Will Smith movie, after all) that “Earth” will come in behind “Epic” and “Star Trek.”

Coming in behind all those should be the magicians-robbing-banks thriller “Now You See Me.” The trailers are fun, but if this was directed by anyone other than Louis Leterrier (“Clash of the Titans”), I’d be a heckuva lot more excited. Look at that cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and one of my favorite actresses, the incandescent Mélanie Laurent. Good reviews could make this a modest success, and it is worth noting that Leterrier directed two of the enjoyable “Transporter” films.

In the world of indies: I saw “Something in the Air” at TIFF 2012, and my initial response, for Buffalo Spree, was muted, at best: “One notable miss was Olivier Assayas’s autobiographical film. This look at students in Paris continuing the struggles of post-May ’68 life is handsomely made but pretty vacant.” But I seemed to sense the tide could turn: “Of course, time often changes my opinions. Seeing Sarah Polley’s ‘Take This Waltz’ at TIFF 2011, I was horribly disappointed. Watching it again months later, outside the pomp and circumstance of the festival setting, I adored it. There’s hope for you yet, ‘Something.’”

This was indeed the case. The more I’ve pondered “Something in the Air,” the stronger it has seemed. Film fest fatigue played a role, I think, in my response; it was the last film, at 9 or 10 p.m., after a long day of walking and watching. And it directly followed the overwhelming emotional experience that is “Amour,” so it certainly seemed rather anonymous, in terms of character and emotion, by comparison. My earlier criticisms are valid, I think. It is hard to find a compelling character here — blah is the most intriguing, but she’s not really the star — yet the mood, the vibe, and the surroundings are so right that it works more often than not. I look forward to seeing it again.

It’s ironic that “Kon-Tiki” is opening today, since yesterday brought major news for its directors, Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg: The duo will helm the fifth installment of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, once more starring starring Johnny Depp. An Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Feature, the well-reviewed “Kon-Tiki” looks like a visual stunner, and, perhaps, a big-screen must-see.

Michael Shannon makes any film more interesting, and it will be especially fun to see him tackle the meaty villain role in “Man of Steel.” Hitman drama “The Iceman” has a heckuva cast — Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, Ray Liotta, James Franco (of course), David Schwimmer (?), Stephen Dorff — but carries the whiff of we’ve-seen-it-all-before. Still, it’s a nice alternative to “The Hangover,” and I’ll catch up with it at some point.

Local filmmaker alert: Cheers to Peter McGennis, the native son director of “Queen City,” which opens tomorrow at the North Park. Taking place and shot in Buffalo, it stars Vivica A. Fox and features a talented lineup including Susan Tedeschi, Allen Toussaint, Maria Muldaur, and Sharon Jones. I did not get a chance to attend its fall screening or see McGennis’s “Buffalo Bushido,” but it’s always nice to help promote an ambitious local filmmaker.

Incidentally, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is moving to the Movieland 8, and “Renoir” and “Mud” are still hanging around, too. Also note that “The Place Beyond the Pines” is showing at both the Movieland and McKinley Mall.

Last but not least, Joss Whedon fans in Western New York should note that “Serenity” is showing at the Screening Room tonight, part of a double-bill with sci-fi oldie “Rocketship X-M.”

Coming soon from me are some thoughts on this strange summer, which features a long lineup of dull blockbusters but some truly stunning smaller films. One of these, “Frances Ha,” opens next Friday. You’re going to love it.