Cast: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloe Grace Moretz
Director: Olivier Assayas
Running Time: 2 hours 4 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Taken at face value, Olivier Assayas's latest film is about an aging French actress named Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) attempting to star in a new version of a play that made her star when she was 18, and the prickly/beneficial relationship with her young American personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart). However, Assayas never simply makes movies meant to be taken purely at face value, and some of the magic of Clouds of Sils Maria is the way he weaves commentary regarding our collective notions of celebrity, fame, and the complications of growing old in an industry that prides youth over experience. In many ways, this is a spiritual sequel to Assayas's 1996 masterpiece Irma Vep, which starred Hong Hong actress Maggie Chung and detailed the fallout of a French director trying to remake the classic silent film Les Vampires. As a deconstruction of French cinema during the 90s, Irma Vep cunningly exploited behind-the-scenes machinations for black comic value and satirical poignancy. Here, Assayas is similarly messing with post-modern ideas of the line between the real-life person and the actor, the theatricality of playing a character, the messiness of how celebrity affects our perception of that character, and the way public personas can be manipulated.
The casting of Binoche and Stewart is a masterstroke, not only because they deliver excellent performances, but also because there's a certain stigma and mystique surrounding the two very different stars that plays into the metaphorical thrust of the narrative. At one time, Binoche was considered an ingenue known for her fetching beauty and waifish presence, particularly in films like 1988's The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Krzystof Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy. At 51, the actress has settled into a formidable artistic career, but how the industry treats aging actresses is still problematic, and Binoche bravely throws herself into the role of Maria with intelligence, wit, and intensity. Additionally, the casting of Stewart as a hip multi-tasking personal assistant (wearing Converse and sporting tattoos), is key to untangling the meta-nature of Assayas's script, which revels in the psychological effects of method acting and the quiet tension between the generational gap. From the film's opening scene set aboard a barreling train heading toward Switzerland, we get a glimpse of Valentine nimbly switching between various tech devices; setting up meetings, making calls, and punching up the social media angle while Maria sits by the window looking panic-stricken. This dichotomy in behavior, and the way the two women interact, is apparent right from the start. There's erotic tension, playful camaraderie, and even a deep-seated rivalry between Maria and Valentine thats navigated brilliantly by Binoche and Stewart, both of whom have vastly divergent acting styles that greatly benefits the film.
The majority of Clouds of Sils Maria takes place in a remote region of the Alps where Maria and Valentine prepare for the upcoming play; reading lines, going on hikes, and even catching the latest Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster. The movie in question, a Marvel-esque bit of CGI bombast, stars upcoming startlet Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz), who has been cast in the 18-year-old role that Maria played in the original version of the play. Jo-Ann is portrayed by Mortez as a nightmarish, tabloid-seeking mess; showing up on the internet in all types of undesirable scenarios and courting controversy on various interview circuits. Valentine sees something truthful and raw about Jo-Ann, but Maria detests the lack of self-control and poise, which leads to one of the film's best scenes in a bar where the two women argue over the merits of Jo-Ann's sci-fi franchise. The way Binoche laughs uncontrollably at Valentine's earnest proclamations that Jo-Ann is getting at something deeper in what appears to be a soulless money-making machine, is indicative of both the age gap as well as their dueling ideologies. It's a humorous moment, but also a clever meta-response to the detractors of the real-life Stewart's career trajectory. It's difficult to watch such a scene and not be aware of a young woman who has been publicly taken to task for her choices, both on and off camera. Mortez, meanwhile, who blew up after playing the foul-mouthed teenager in Kick-Ass, is also playing around with her onscreen image, and what's most interesting is the way she handles the quieter scenes alongside Binoche and Stewart. It's almost as if Jo-Ann is also playing a role in terms of her erratic public persona, which feels engineered in order to keep her in the spotlight. In person, away from the paparazzi, this young star is often thoughtful and well-mannered.
Ultimately, Clouds of Sils Maria must reach the moment where Maria and Jo-Ann act opposite one another in the play, but the film is not really about building up to a charged crescendo. Instead, its a small-scaled drama in which two women circle one another; sometimes reading the text of the play "in character", while at other times blurring the line between their true selves and the fictional counterparts. Binoche often explodes with a searing rage; channeling years of disappointment, heartbreak, and false starts, but she is just as often withdrawn and sullen, questioning her talents and becoming unnaturally co-dependent upon her assistant. Stewart underplays beautifully as Valentine, offering counter-arguments to Maria's self-deprecating lack of confidence and suggesting a life outside her work (as evidenced by her forays away from the Alps and literary-inspired tattoos). The strength of her performance is just how restrained and effortless she appears onscreen, and though Binoche's portrayal is more emotionally wrought, Stewart quietly steals the film. Perhaps the real star here, though, is Assayas, who serves his actresses well by structuring a story from a female point of view, and who conjures an atmosphere both grounded and ephemeral. In a way, Clouds of Sils Maria feels like a stage play masquerading as character drama; a tightly wound, though unusually expansive take on memory, aging, and the power of the written word. There's also something about the film's title, which we all expect to pay off in some way, and when it does, its one of the most ravishingly beautiful scenes of the year.