Maria Enders is an ageing actress whose best known role was that of Sigrid in the 20 year old play 'Maloja Snake'. The play centres on the relationship between two women - the young and manipulative Sigrid and her older boss Helena, who eventually commits suicide under Sigrid's destructive influence. Enders is now being scouted again for a revival of the production, though this time in the role of Helena. She is reluctant to take on the project, but does so with the encouragement of her trusted young assistant Valentine. Soon she meets a rising starlet named Jo-Ann Ellis who is to play the new Sigrid, but Maria finds her rude and as destructive as her forthcoming character. Soon the pressure and uncomfortable similarities to herself she sees in Jo-Ann get too much for Maria, who's already overcome with grief following her divorce and the death of a friend. Plus, she starts to feel like she could be losing Valentine, who's beginning to think there's something unhealthy about Maria's reliance on her.
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An intriguing Chinese box of a movie, this slightly too-clever drama unpicks the layers of identity that are concealed behind the image of a celebrity. It's so knowing that it can't help but find revelatory meaning here and there, and the performances are raw and fascinating. There's also spectacular scenery and some darkly swelling emotions. But the themes are pushed a bit too hard, and the plot is enigmatic and oddly unresolved.
At the centre is Maria (Juliette Binoche), a famous actress who is aware that as she ages she's entering a new phase in her career. She's headed with her personal assistant Val (Kristen Steward) to a special event in Sils-Maria, Switzerland, to honour Wilhelm, the director who made Maria a star. But Wilhelm dies just before they arrive, so the event turns into a memorial instead. At the funeral, theatre director Klaus (Lars Eidinger) approaches Maria about starring in a new version of Wilhelm's iconic play Maloja Snake, which refers to an unusual cloud formation in this Alpine region. But this time Maria would play the older woman, while rising-star Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz) takes the ingenue role that sparked Maria's career. While Jo-Ann catches headlines for her bad-girl antics, Maria asks Val to help her get a grip on the alien older character she will be playing.
The story spirals out from here with swirling angles of meaning, as the play within the film becomes entangled with the contrasting public and private lives of the celebrities. Thankfully, even though everything is very pointed, the actors deliver remarkably off-handed performances that are very easy to identify with, revealing their characters' private thoughts and insecurities. There is of course also a further meta-level to all of this, as Jo-Ann's paparazzi-baiting lifestyle echoes experiences Stewart herself has had.
Continue reading: Clouds of Sils Maria Review
A bracingly audacious approach to storytelling sets this film apart from the crowd, as it recounts an unnerving series of events in an inventive way. German filmmaker Dietrich Bruggemann tells this bold story in just 14 long takes, each of them titled as one of the Stations of the Cross (Jesus Is Condemned to Death, Jesus Carries His Cross, and so on). But this isn't a literal retelling of the crucifixion, it's using Catholicism to explore how religious, educational and political ideologies can warp a young person's mind. And how tricky it is to know what's really going on.
At the centre is 14-year-old Maria (Lea van Acken), studying for her confirmation with Father Weber (Florian Stetter). As part of a fundamentalist Catholic sect, Weber urges the teens to reject "immoral" advertising and "demonic" rock music. And Maria's devout mother (Franziska Weisz) takes this very seriously indeed, loosing her cool whenever she thinks her daughter might be going off these very narrow rails. But Maria is even more pious, ashamed that her interest in a boy (Moritz Knapp) has made her lie to her mother. Then she decides that if she sacrifices everything in her life she may bring about a miracle for her baby brother, who at 4 still hasn't spoken his first word. While her strict discipline makes her physically frail, she feels like she's getting closer to God.
With the intense filming style (the camera only moves a few times), Bruggemann never gives the audience any relief. Scenes are packed with all kinds of moods, including humour, tentative longing, curiosity and harsh disapproval, but each moment is so carefully filmed that we can't take our eyes off Maria. Her interaction with everyone around her is staggeringly complicated, and we begin to understand how she sees what she's doing as her path to sainthood. Only a few people provide a voice of reason in this closed-in community, including a doctor, teachers and Maria's au-pair (Lucie Aron). But it's Maria's mother who dominates everything, and Weisz delivers a remarkably twisty performance as a woman who wants to have fun with her family but can't resist harshly controlling everything.
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The movie's main character is Eyal (Lior Ashkenazi), a stoic killer who works for the Israeli government. Though he is still excellent at his job, he's having personal problems. Sensing that he needs some time to regain his footing, Eyal's boss assigns him to find an elderly Nazi officer. Eyal dismisses the assignment as unnecessary -- the officer is close to death -- but his boss is adamant: "I want to get him before God does." The Nazi's whereabouts are unknown, but his adult grandchildren are in Israel. Pia (Caroline Peters) is working on a kibbutz, and her schoolteacher brother Axel (Knut Berger) is visiting from Berlin. Eyal poses as Axel's tour guide, while the recording device in Pia's dorm covers what he misses.
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