Clouds of Sils Maria
Written and directed by Olivier Assayas
France/ Switzerland/Germany, 2014
Val (Kristen Stewart) attempts to keep her balance on an Alps-bound train as she juggles iPhone, Blackberry, and coffee. She’s opening and closing business deals as well as taking care of divorce details for Maria (Juliette Binoche), who waits behind her star-worthy sunglasses for any sort of good news. They’re friendly toward each other in this relationship of international star and personal assistant, but their attitudes are soon to become each being transfixed on the other, forming into a singular dramatic entity. Olivier Assayas, especially with his previous Irma Vep, has had a keen awareness for this entity and how the actions on-set can serve as a sort of chamber drama in itself. With Clouds of Sils Maria, his vision behind this project becomes realized in the channel of Bergman by way of TMZ, a smartly composed dive into the role of celebrity culture and how it influences the films they inhabit.
Maria, a legendary actress, takes on another role in a remake of the play that made her career, upon hearing of the original director’s death. While first playing the lively and powerful Sigrid, twenty years old and full of youthful ambition, she’s now allocated to the role of Helena: old, vulnerable, weak. She’s despondent about having to take what she sees as a lesser role, but director Klaus (Lars Eidinger) ensures her that the part could only be played by someone who has lived as Sigrid — that they’re really the same character in the end, only separated by time. Val comforts Maria through assuring her that the role of Helena is a more admirable one, yet angers her by appreciating the young actress playing Sigrid, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), for her lively displays in TMZ footage and her willingness to play big, superficial roles. As Maria finds herself delving deeper into her own investigation of the celebrity gossip surrounding Jo-Ann, she must grapple with her age, her role, and what qualities of her career ultimately define her.
The film itself is structured as a play haphazardly cobbled together, as an unannounced title-card for “Part 2” leads the majority of the film, while an “Epilogue” pushes the film into a nearly completely different world. It’s a convention that puts the film in terms of what’s being seen on-screen, a call to recall the actors’ places in celebrity culture and if it’s worthy to read their actions and performances in that vein. Thus, yes, the casting of Kristen Stewart whose following from her steps into Hollywood franchise puts her directly in this position, but Assayas’ points run deeper than mere prodding. Binoche’s Maria is the character who takes the brunt of the fame-scalding, her reminiscence of her more youthful role taking a toll on her line-reading for the more passive character. She still identifies, even in her personal life, with the role of Sigrid — her back-and-forth with Val being emotionally disrupted because of the previous actress’ timely death after the role. Her fusion of both these roles recalls the masterful personality-melding work of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, with chamber drama high in the Alps in Sils Maria recalling the vivacious melancholy of Bergman’s Swedish isle.
Its themes are promising and its execution is maintained in typical Assayas flourish, but the waves of direct exposition weaken at least the first act significantly. The broad structure of the film, the topics it seeks to investigate, and the interior ambitions of the characters come out not through craftsmanship or audience interpretation, but through the dialogue following each major action. Maria must inform: “In some ways I’m still Sigrid.” Klaus must answer back: “They’re one and the same person.” There’s enough nuance to these characters that it’s easy to gauge Maria’s inextricable link to the role, as well as why Val’s admiration of the dominating Jo-Ann could prove unsettling, without each immediately confirming our suspicions aloud. Val and Maria bicker over their analysis of the play’s characters, only to begin analyzing the nature of their own bickering — it’s a large part of the cinema experience being stolen from the audience and leaves one unsatisfied, as if an action movie with a criminal immediately subservient to an arrest scene with no hint of a chase.
Regardless, this problem solves itself with the introduction of Jo-Ann’s scandal and Maria’s mysterious acceptance of the brat’s disturbing of her personal role. Once themes and ambitions have been well-established, the actresses are free to delve into them and dive at each others’ throats. The undercurrent here is formally displaced through chilling imagery of the Swiss Alps and footage of the play’s namesake: the Majola Snake, a phenomenon of slithering mist-clouds squeezing its way through the Alps, is prominently displayed as the film begins to make a mysterious turn. Packed with airy yet strong performances (including Stewart at her most charismatic), Clouds of Sils Maria packages acting and storytelling as a public yet personal melting pot of human behavior.
– Zach Lewis