It’s as if Olivier Assayas made the beginning of Clouds of Sils Maria to cater to my cinematic preferences. The film starts with no credits whatsoever; rather, we’re placed alongside Valentine (Kristen Stewart) in a shaky train as she juggles phone calls and manages some sort of talent. It leaves the viewer clueless and yet completely submerged and soon enough it’s understood that this foreshadows the tone of the entire film. Then we meet the ridiculously radiant Juliette Binoche as Maria Enders, a famous actor en route to accept an award on a director’s behalf. This director was key in her ascension to celebrity, though we soon find out he’s unexpectedly passed away. Immediately the plot line is overturned.
Maria is such a thrill to watch because it is rare to fall for two characters so quickly, let alone when they’re independent women. I wanted to know every single thing about Valentine and Maria, and while Assayas reveals lots along the way, they remain as cryptic as the Maloja Snake (this footage was fantastically featured in the film), from which Maria gains its name. I find it very powerful when a film can introduce its audience to something very real yet distant for most, and Assayas is able to do so here in multiple ways: most obviously by showcasing the Maloja Snake, but also by pulling back the curtain to see what happens as actors prepare for roles, age in Hollywood, address the paparazzi, etc.
It’s hard to choose the best part of Maria, with the dialogue being so organic, the cinematography exquisite, and the performances top notch. The script is written dreamily, and that’s no coincidence. We ebb and flow from a play’s script to reality. The play, named after the Maloja Snake as well, regards the affair of a woman and her young, female assistant. Maria played the part of the girl as her first major role, and now will be performing as the woman. When Valentine helps her read lines, the entanglement of fiction and truth is fantastically blurred. General conversation between the two women is sharp, humorous, and feels as if it wasn’t written at all. It’s no wonder Stewart became the first American woman to win a Cesar Award from this performance. It didn’t feel like one at any point.
The tracking shots used throughout Maria are breathtaking, and filming in the Alps definitely helps. Assayas creates a mood that allows scenes of Jo-Ann Ellis’ (Chloe Grace Moretz) films and the play itself feel drastically different. We’re plucked from one world and placed in another in these circumstances. And the ending… well, the ending made me want to watch the whole thing over while also wanting an additional 12 hours to learn more.