The films of Olivier Assayas have such a wide range in style and subject matter that they practically defy categorization. One of things I admire most is that he’s not a perfectionist, and his awareness that a film will always have flaws is woven into his aesthetic—it’s part of his approach. His latest movie is called Clouds of Sils Maria, and the dense layering of its themes and correspondences comes off, strangely, as light and spontaneous, because he never overdoes it, never tries to press a point or broadcast a message. In a way the film is about itself—or rather, about acting, writing, performance, and all the richness of relationships that is ever present in the background of any play or film.
At the center is a middle-aged actress, Maria Enders, played by Juliette Binoche, and her personal assistant Val, played by Kristen Stewart. On a train going to Switzerland to accept an award for a famous writer, Wilhelm Melchior, they get the news that Wilhelm has died, and now the celebration becomes a wake.
Maria ends up accepting an offer to act in a revival of the play by Melchior that launched her career. As a young woman she had played Sigrid, a seductress who destroys the life of an older woman named Helena. Now she’s agreed to play Helena. She and her assistant then stay on in a house in Sils Maria, high in the Alps, and as Val helps Maria rehearse her part, the tortured relationship in the play is mirrored by the more ambiguous one in real life.
If you’re not convinced that Juliette Binoche is one of the greatest actresses on the planet, this might do the trick. On the public side, her character can still appear as glamorous and sexy; in private we get to see the weariness, the arrogance, and the fear of losing her bankability as a film actress because of her age, which is only aggravated by the choice of this role, which she hates and wants to get out of having to play. Maria is fully realized on screen—it’s as if no one is actually watching—this is the real thing. And so you may ask: Can the young American actress Kristen Stewart hold her own with this legend of French cinema? The answer is yes. Her performance as the guarded, efficient, super-intelligent Val is her most mature yet.
The background to this evocation of an actress trying to live a role is the majestic scenery of Sils Maria, the clouds of the title moving through the mountain peaks like a great serpent. In fact this phenomenon has a name: the Maloja Snake, which is also the name of Wilhelm’s play. The landscape has a way of giving a remote cast to the picture’s edgy conversations.
In addition, Assayas is unafraid to satirize the current state of film and entertainment in the person of the actress slated to be Sigrid in the revival—a bratty Hollywood starlet named Jo-Ann, played by Chloȅ Grace Moretz, who creates Lindsay Lohan-style celebrity scandals and stars in a cheesy looking science fiction superhero film that Maria and Val watch in 3-D at a local movie house. The contrast with the high concept nature of the play is poignant and funny, but once again Assayas never overdoes it.
The film has a dreamy and capricious feeling that is hard to describe, and the ideas it provokes about youth and age, technology, the role of the artist, love and jealousy, and a host of other subjects, can’t be cataloged in a short review. But they continue to resonate and bubble up from the surface after I’ve seen it, more potent perhaps that one would expect while watching it. Clouds of Sils Maria ultimately reveals its secrets by respecting life’s mystery.