Clouds of Sils Maria
Film industry drama finds actress caught between art and a hard place
Clouds of Sils Maria
Directed by Olivier Assayas
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz
Longtime writer-director, son of famed screenwriter Jacques Rémy, early advocate of the New Asian Cinema of the ’80s and ’90s, Cannes Film Festival judge and contributor to venerable film digest Cahiers du Cinema: There are few filmmakers working today whose dedication to the art of film is as unequivocal as Olivier Assayas’. Despite his résumé, the French New Wave lover and one-time agent provocateur (Irma Vep; Late August, Early September; Demonlover) is either getting softer or more mature in his later years. His latest film, Clouds of Sils Maria, is a quiet, contemplative, indirectly personal rumination about a life on film.
The film stars Juliette Binoche as Maria Enders. Don’t let the name fool you, however; she’s more or less playing herself. Maria is a famous actress who has successfully transitioned from European art-house diva to well-paid Hollywood star. As the film begins, she’s traveling via train to Switzerland where she’s scheduled to hand a lifetime achievement award to Wilhelm Melchior, the playwright/filmmaker who gave her her breakthrough role. At the tender age of 18, she played Sigrid, a lesbian seductress who destroys the life of a businesswoman twice her age. (Not so coincidentally, Binoche had her breakthrough role in the similarly sexy hit The Unbearable Lightness of Being just about 30 years ago.)
Unfortunately, en route to the titular mountain town, Maria is informed by her officious personal assistant Val (Kristen Stewart) that Mr. Melchior has passed away. Diverted to Zurich, Maria finds herself—against her better judgment—roped into an impromptu memorial/tribute to the late director. While avoiding interviews, photo shoots and old lovers, Maria is approached by Young Turk director Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger). Klaus is itching to do a remake of Mr. Melchior’s first film, the one that shot Maria to stardom. The twist is that Maria would now play the obsessive older woman. The part of the young seductress would be played by Hollywood flavor of the month Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz from Kick-Ass). Jo-Ann is a Lindsay Lohan-style hot mess of a starlet and pretty much Maria’s polar opposite.
Following the memorial, Maria and Val head up to an isolated inn in the Alps for some R and R and a bit of agonized thinking. Should Maria take the role of the doomed older woman? Would it signal a turning point in her career? The actress’ decision is complicated by the fact that the original actress who played the role died shortly after filming was completed—lending a superstitious (not to mention heavily metaphorical) air to the whole affair.
Though it features plenty of other actors, Clouds of Sils Maria is mostly a two-hander, with Binoche and Stewart shouldering the bulk of the acting duties in isolation. Binoche, it goes without saying, is thoroughly believable as the alternately confident and insecure actress on the verge of “aging out” of Hollywood. The surprise here is Stewart, who arguably turns in the better performance. (She actually won the French César Award for Best Supporting Actress earlier this year.) The further she gets from Twilight, the less stiff and more natural Stewart looks on screen. Her role here amounts to a one-two punch after her fine supporting work on Still Alice. (Perhaps it just takes a great actress like Julianne Moore or Juliette Binoche to bring it out in her.) As Binoche and Stewart’s characters run lines, argue, question the future and discuss the past, the line between reality and script blurs—on more than one level. Are Maria and Val fighting with one another or rehearsing a scene? Is Maria talking about her career in Hollywood, or is that Binoche editorializing?
Other complications eventually arrive to throw a monkey wrench into Maria and Val’s dramatic ping-pong match, but it’s this extended middle section that stands out strongest amid the film’s narrative. It’s also the part that will make or break it for most viewers. Clouds of Sils Maria isn’t too concerned with the velocity of its storyline. Despite the visual peaks and valleys of the surrounding Alps, this is strictly slow, low-key, straight-line territory. Thanks to Assayas’ wordy script, Binoche and Stewart hash out the film’s various themes of art vs. life, youth vs. age, private identity vs. public persona in a series of long-winded, navel-gazing conversations. There’s little in the way of action and almost no soundtrack to distract from the endless dialogue. Clouds of Sils Maria does very much like the sound of its own voice.
Clearly, Assayas intends this to be a highly self-referential and entirely meta affair—with actresses playing actresses, movies within movies and a relentless verbal mockery of the film industry. But Clouds lacks the consciously artistic and stylistic artifice of his earlier films. Irma Vep this ain’t. It practically begs for a more satirical script and a more vibrant milieu in which to unfold. (Mountains are pretty and all, but they’re visually and metaphorically static.) For those who appreciate a good, My Dinner with Andre-style conversation, Clouds of Sils Maria will scratch that logorrheic itch. Others are likely to find this “all talk and no action” drama far too filled with air.