Sunday, April 26, 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria Review

I recently celebrated my 31st birthday, but my Kristen Stewart memories go back to when I was still a high school student, months away from graduation. Lord knows I don't recall a thing about what was going on in my social life at that time, or what classes I was taking in school, yet I can vividly remember sitting down in a theater and getting ready for a brand new Fincher thriller on the big screen. Was I blown away by my introduction to this child actress portraying the diabetic/asthmatic daughter of Jodie Foster? No, probably not, but there was certainly a talent there that would show itself eventually. It was a safe bet this wasn't the last I would see from this very young fresh face, but I never could have anticipated what the future would hold.

Six years after the release of Panic Room, here is that girl again only now she is starring in some bullshit vampire nonsense that would turn into a franchise, billions of dollars pouring into executives pockets while inspiring precisely no one in the process. She became a source of hatred from teenage girls around the world who all loved one or both of the pale male creatures that read their lines like slabs of wood alongside her. Memes were unleashed insulting her lack of range. Followed by middle aged men paid to take pictures and scorned for alleged love affairs with married directors, that glimmer of hope I saw way back when had become toilet bowl TMZ fodder that would never reach its potential. 

Suddenly, we have Camp X-Ray, an above average film with an even better lead performance. Julianne Moore took home trophy after trophy for her work in Still Alice, and rightfully so, but no one really talked about the strong, confident supporting work from that familiar face that played her daughter. Was this the same joke, the same train wreck tabloid headline that would forever be nothing more than a high school girl with a 200 year old hunky boyfriend that shimmers in the sun?

Well, little did I know that the best was yet to come, even after those two performances. Kristen Stewart is a revelation in Clouds of Sils Maria, and yet she still may be hiding out in the shadows of an even stronger lead. Juliette Binoche is an early but serious Oscar contender, playing an aging movie star who refuses to accept the inevitability and relentless nature of time. She is asked to take the stage for the revival of a play she had starred in 20 years earlier, but not for the same character. No, that role is still meant to be portrayed by the young and Maria no longer fits that bill.

The chemistry shared on screen between Binoche and Stewart is remarkable, Binoche playing the slightly unstable and increasingly unhinged star who cannot comprehend being pushed out of the spotlight by the new generation of talent and Stewart always by her side as an assistant. Their conversations in private are thought provoking and insightful and it is important to note that they aren't merely words, nor are they just some reflections to teach us that aging sucks. There is more in play here as we watch someone try to look themselves in the mirror and find a way to leave their younger former self behind, try to accept the facts of life and the concept of time. No matter how much we all wish to stop it or even just slow it down for a moment, time continues to move forward.

The way Maria looks at her. The cynical way she views the world and more specifically the industry she calls home. The way Valentine looks back, with admiration that is balanced out by honesty and integrity. The optimistic way she approaches art and keeps an open mind about genres and weighty themes and the people that play the roles she sees on the stage or on screen. As their dialogue intensifies and the tension between them becomes palpable, I couldn't shake off the feeling that Clouds of Sils Maria was inspired in part by Bergman and the way he portrayed women in Persona. As the clouds roll in, I admired them with a feeling of certainty that I had correctly predicted the seemingly out of nowhere twist a bit in advance, but this didn't take anything away from the experience. It's handled with such class and intelligence and artistry that even when I saw it coming, as a fan of cinema I was thrilled at the concept and its execution. 

It's early and I have no idea what level of supporting performances we will see later this year, but whether she deserves it or not (she does), I have a gut feeling Kristen Stewart will not receive recognition from the Academy for what she achieved during Clouds of Sils Maria, and a part of me doesn't really give a shit. No awards will change how I felt watching these amazing actresses work together in harmony, with certain sequences playing like the perfect demonstration videos for anyone who dreams of becoming an actor. What does need to stop, however, is this misguided notion that Stewart is a punch line to a joke.

She can flat out act. Her subtle, nuanced performance in Clouds of Sils Maria with her deadpan delivery that perfectly sits along side the highs and lows of Binoche is top notch stuff, and the film itself is, at this point, the best of 2015 thus far.


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