Clouds of Sils Maria (2023)

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Synopsis

This multilayered, immensely entertaining drama from the great contemporary French director Olivier Assayas is a singular look at the intersection of high art and popular culture. The always extraordinary Juliette Binoche is stirring as Maria, a stage and screen icon who is being courted to star in a new production of the play that made her famous—only this time she must assume the role of the older woman. Kristen Stewart matches her punch for punch as her beleaguered assistant, called upon to provide support both professional and emotional for her mercurial boss. And Chloë Grace Moretz is Maria’s arrogant new castmate, a starlet waiting in the wings. An amorphous, soul-searching tale, filled with ethereal images of its Swiss Alps setting, Clouds of Sils Maria brilliantly dramatizes one woman’s reckoning with herself and the world.

Picture 8/10

Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria gets a Blu-ray upgrade after recently receiving a DVD-only release from Paramount. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1 on a dual-layer disc in 1080p/24hz high-definition. It’s based on a 2K scan of the original 35mm negative.

The film is only a couple of years old so unsurprisingly the image looks very good. It’s a sharp image that delivers the finer details and textures easily, depth looks good, and the film’s colours look rich and vibrant. A sequence later in the film featuring a superhero movie within this movie showcases some particularly brilliant looking colours and fairly bright whites without any blooming (I’m guessing this sequence was actually shot digitally though I can’t say for sure). Black levels are strong but I found crushing to be a bit of an issue in the film’s darker scenes. The titled clouds that we get a few shots of look natural as they float through the peaks, and I didn’t notice any artifacts or banding. The encode in general looks to be very good.

As expected damage isn’t a concern at all (except within silent film footage that appears in the film). The image looks natural and clean, moving smoothly, ultimately delivering that film-like look I like to see, but again, considering how new the film is this wasn’t a big surprise.

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Audio 9/10

The film comes with a 5.1 DTS-HD MA surround track and for what is a “talky” film it manages to do a lot with its sound design. The film immediately opens on a train, Kristen Stewart’s character doing dealings over multiple phones. There’s a lot of activity going on in this sequence, with not only Stewart trying to juggle multiple calls but the scene has the train veering down the tracks, clacking along, whizzing by exterior object, all while the cabin shifts about, jiggling objects around. This is a beautifully mixed sequence that nicely showcases your set-up. The viewer is basically placed in the middle of the scene, with all of this chaos happening around them, and I thought it was nicely mixed and directed to capture the environment. Also, the volume levels are nicely controlled so we don’t lose anything that Stewart says when it’s important.

The rest of the film isn’t as active, but there are plenty of crowded gatherings where all of the speakers work together to place the viewer in the middle of the action. Exterior shots also present nice mixes, particularly the various hikes where you hear plenty of ambient sounds in nature from insects chirping to the wind rustling. The music in the film also nicely envelopes the viewer, sounding rich and pure, and the track as a whole is clean and rich, with no noticeable damage or background noise. It’s a very pleasing, very effective surround presentation.

Extras 6/10

The film received a DVD-only, barebones edition from Paramount last year, much to the surprise of many, but here it is now on Blu-ray from Criterion. I’m guessing IFC, possibly in hopes of capitalizing on Kristen Stewart being in the film, wanted to get the film out on video as quickly as possible and Paramount was able to do this while Criterion worked on their edition (a similar thing is happening with Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which as of now has received a Paramount DVD and Blu-ray release and Linklater has confirmed Criterion will release it in the future). I’m guessing the arrangement that happened with Blue is the Warmest Color, where Criterion would release a barebones release and then a special edition later (that still hasn’t materialized), didn’t work out.

At any rate, because of that I guess I was expecting a stacked release of some sort but I was shocked to see that ultimately it’s just two interview segments, one featuring director Olivier Assayas and then the other featuring actors Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart. They’re at least fairly lengthy, running 38-minutes each.

Assayas gives the backstory to this film, which was born out of the desire both he and Binoche had to work together again. They had initially worked together on André Téchiné’s Rendez-vous, which got Binoche a lot of attention, and was one of Assayas’ first credits, though as writer (interestingly we get a lot of clips from the film but they look to be sourced from a DVD). It was from that that the idea behind the story for Clouds of Sils Maria was born, about an actor, in this case played by Binoche, coming back to an early play she had worked on and being forced to look at it and its characters through the perspectives of the current, younger generation. It’s actually quite interesting the influences that really play into this film and Assayas does go over them: I sort of suspected it but he does confirm that Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant was an influence on the play within the film (though he calls his version a “bastardized” and “simplified” version of it) and he talks about how Bergman’s Persona probably did play a small part into the film as well, though doesn’t want to give it too much credit. All of this and then his interests in social media, modern celebrity, and then of course Arnold Fanck’s short film Cloud Phenomena of Maloja (which appears in the film and on this disc as an extra) were all then blended together when creating this story.

It’s a great analysis on the themes of his film and how he constructed them, but from here he also covers some of the difficulties in shooting (the train scene was particularly problematic it seems) and directing Binoche and Stewart. It’s a terrific, very insightful interview.

As is the one featuring Binoche and Stewart. Unfortunately they were recorded separately but we still get an interesting collaboration here. The two talk about their respective characters and the development of them, their ways in preparation for a role (which differ a great deal), and working with Assayas. Binoche is wonderful here, as expected, but I guess I was surprised by Stewart, who is very forthcoming. Though she has an incredible amount to say about her role, her relationship with Binoche’s character, and the film, what surprised me most was when she shares she had actually been originally approached by Assayas to play Jo-Ann, the troubled Hollywood star (the role eventually went to Chloë Grace Moretz), which devastated her as she was intrigued more by Valentine. Unfortunately it isn’t explained how Assayas came to cast her in that role since it sounds as though he had someone else already cast as Val. At any rate, it’s another excellent interview segment and a nice companion to Assayas’.

Criterion also includes Arnold Fanck’s short film Cloud Phenomena of Maloja, which appears in the film and was an inspiration to Assayas for it. It’s a short, 10-minute “documentary” capturing the snake like formation of the clouds that pass through the peaks of the mountains. The opening states that this is actually shorter than the original film, but this version is the only existing one today. Interspersed with a few title cards it’s a beautifully shot film, simply presenting the titled phenomena. It’s also presented in 1080/60hz and doesn’t look half bad, looking to have had some restoration work done on it. Criterion also includes some text notes about the film, Fanck, and the “mountain film” genre (I guess you can call it) under the “About” item in the sub menu. A thoughtful inclusion.

The disc then closes with the film’s American theatrical trailer, which, not too surprisingly, presents a very different looking film than what it actually is, and then the included insert features a short essay by Molly Haskell looking at the generation gap presented in the film, and mentions other films that cover some of the same ideas (like Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young). It adds a nice but lone scholarly slant to the release.

In the end, despite enjoying the material here I admit to being a bit underwhelmed, but if you were to press me on what else could have been added I’d be at a loss (though I’m surprised Moertz doesn’t show up in all honesty). At the very least I thought the interviews were all quite good.

Closing

I guess the features feel slim but it’s still a nice edition in the end, delivering strong audio and video.

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