Clouds of Sils Maria is a provocative film. The gamut of topics that pass through the consciousness of screenwriter (and director) Olivier Assayas are plentiful and diverse. It considers youth vs. age, life vs. death, the past vs. the present, art vs. commerce, and fame vs. anonymity. Good heavens! Any one of these would’ve been enough fodder for an entire script, but Assayas touches on all of these topics. The complexity of Clouds involves trying to figure just what heck the narrative is actually about. It’s arty to the point of ambiguousness. Regardless Assayas clearly delineates a deep poignancy amongst women.
Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is an international star that is on her way to accept an award on behalf of world renowned playwright Wilhelm Melichior. In her early 20s, she played Sigrid, the ingénue in a play he directed called The Maloja Snake. While en route by train, she receives word that the man to be feted has died which turns the celebration into a memorial. When she arrives she meets another director Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger). Her assistant Valentine (Kristin Stewart) has set up this appointment. Klaus is interested in directing a revival of The Maloja Snake. However this time, he wants her to play Helena, the woman twice Sigrid’s age driven to suicide from their destructive love.
Reality and fiction have a way of intertwining uncomfortably for the respected actress. Juliette Binoche playing the part of an esteemed thespian in her 40s is not such a stretch. She beautifully immerses herself in the portrayal as expected. More surprising is Kristin Stewart who gives an extremely self possessed performance. As her personal assistant Val, she motivates Maria to secure the role. Maria subsequently prepares for the play with Val who runs the lines of the adolescent social climber. The play is endlessly rehearsed throughout the movie and at times, the line between their true character and the persona they’re playing become blurred. The idea of playing the opposite part intrigues Maria. Though she becomes conflicted because the role forces her to confront her own mortality. Further confusing things is the setting of Lake Sils, an area in the Maloja district of the Swiss Alps. There they witness mysterious cloud formations that slither through the mountain scenery. This is the real-life Maloja Snake after which their fictional play is named.
Controversial wild child actress Jo Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz) is chosen to play Sigrid, the role that was originally Maria’s. When Maria finally meets the young upstart, her flattery of the venerable actresses immediately recalls the association between Margo Channing and Eve Harrington in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve. I’m sure the comparison was intentional. Maria has many more interactions with her assistant Val than actress Jo-Ann. However the unbalanced relationship between the characters in the play is definitely a bone of contention for the older actress.
It’s safe to say that Clouds of Sils Maria is a character study. Beyond that though I’m not exactly sure how to label what Oliver Assayas is trying to say with this piece. That is to say, it’s a bit dramatically gray. Val enjoys working for Maria, a famous actress. Maria treasures Val’s youthful energy. Kristin Stewart inhabits a woman that almost seems tailored made to suit her own temperament. She’s at her very best. When Val pleads with her employer to look past the veneer of a rising starlet’s goofy superhero role to the talent beneath, you can actually hear Stewart justifying her own work in the Twilight movies. She is every bit Binoche’s match in these conversations. Stewart’s work here is a reminder of just how great she can be. In the end, one can at least say Clouds simply concerns time, or the passage of it and how it affects us. Director Assayas understands women. With this production, he has created a richly textured examination of individuals with three juicy female parts. There are a few men in the picture too, but they are inconsequential additions merely there to support the girls. Ah yes, Clouds of Sils Maria is that rare meaningful film where women are the sole purpose of the tale. Yes for those familiar with the Bechdel Test, this passes with flying colors.