There are a lot of other films that seem like they might compare to Clouds of Sils Maria. Certainly the Before series, or Certified Copy, or any other films about cerebral conversations and the nature of relationships shot against gorgeous (mostly European locales). There is something to be said for an idealized setting to wrestle with one’s hopes and fears and doubts with a partner. Clouds of Sils Maria, however, does not center on a romantic couple, but an actress and her personal assistant. This gives the film a different dramatic weight completely, and a focus not found in those other films. The film opens with actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) and her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) traveling to Zurich by train to accept an award on behalf of the playwright Wilhelm Melchior. Maria’s breakout performance as a young actress on stage and screen came as starring in Maloja Snake, written and adapted to film by Melchior. Maloja Snake is about a young girl, Sigrid, who seduces an older woman, Helen, and ends tragically. Maria originated the role of Sigrid. On the way, they learn that Melchior has suddenly passed away. While in Zurich, a popular theater director offer’s Maria the opportunity to star in Maloja Snake again, but this time as Helen. She reluctantly agrees.
The meat of the film is in the second part, as Maria and Valentine retire to Melchior’s home, remote in the Alps, so that Maria can prepare for the production of Maloja Snake. In between running through lines, Maria and Val talk about celebrity gossip, superhero movies, aging, and Maria’s future co-star, Jo-Ann Ellis (Cloë Grace Moretz), herself a nexus of tabloid “news.” These scenes reveal the various sides to Maria and Val’s relationship, which run the gamut from friend and confident to a jealous rival for imagined affections. It seems to be tenet of these kinds of films that just beneath the surface layer of any relationship is a complex, tangled web of posturing, self-image and insecurities.
Of course, as Maria and Val run through the paces of Sigrid and Helen, their own relationship is refracted back, furthering the splintering and blurring the line between reality and fiction for these characters. Stepping into the role of Helen after years of carrying Sigrid is taxing on Marie, and emotionally draining. Val’s perspective on the play, and perhaps more importantly, her ideas on what Maria’s perspective on Maloja Snake should be complicates things further. It's not so much that they slip in and out of roles, but Marie's attempt at playing the role of Helen, and truly understand her character seems to drive a wedge between her and Val. This wedge underlies all the other issues they discuss, from the popularity of superheroes to the merits of what constitutes a brave performance, reflecting both broad generational divides as well as ones specific to these women. This film is truly a showcase for Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart, who each fully inhabit their characters in a very distinct and real way. Even while dancing through the brambles of the film’s ‘roles within roles’ in the second act, there is never any doubt as to the weight and feeling underlying these women. While Binoche gets a few moments for outbursts of emotions, Stewart matches her intensity despite ultimately giving a more subtle performance.
The film makes a rather bizarre choice leading into what is labeled the epilogue, but one that did not ultimately diminish my love for the film. While I am a relative newcomer to the oeuvre of Olivier Assayas, there are likely other parallels that can be traced between his work with Binoche and her character’s career in the film. And again, while it would be easy to pick at certain choices Assayas makes, the overall film drew me in and kept me there. In some ways, The Clouds of Sils Maria covers similar ground to Birdman, touching on the stage, “art” versus pop art/superheroes, online celebrity culture, and age. However, Assayas handles it with thoughtful maturity and a respect lacking in the churlish Best Picture winner.
While some may be off-put by the long conversations and occasional slow pace, I never once found myself bored or disengaged from the captivating performances and impressive alpine vistas of Clouds of Sils Maria.
Clouds of Sils Maria opens in Philadelphia area theaters today.