In Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria, Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart rehearse a complex, nuanced, and shape-shifting psychological drama that blurs the lines between playacting and reality.
Binoche, luminous as ever, portrays Maria Enders, a distinguished French stage and screen actress, while Stewart plays Valentine, her reliable, efficient, and elusive young assistant from America. Assayas plunges us right into the middle of a story that has already been unfolding. Divided into chapters, Clouds of Sils Maria opens on a commuter train traveling to Zurich, where Maria is scheduled to present a lifetime achievement award to her close friend and mentor, the great playwright Wilhelm Melchior (who never appears in the film). Along the way, as Valentine expertly conducts business conversations on multiple smartphones and Maria discusses her pending divorce with a lawyer, they receive the news of Melchior’s sudden death.
The two women arrive in Zurich and meet the playwright’s widow, Rosa (Angela Winkler), who invites them to stay at her home in the Swiss mountains while she is away. Twenty years earlier, Melchior catapulted Maria to stardom by casting her in the play that was a breakout hit for both of them. Entitled Maloja Snake after the peculiar cloud formation that occurs near this place, the work tells the tale of a burned-out female corporate executive’s ruinous affair with a manipulative young woman in her office, played by Maria. Now, in middle age, she has been asked to take on the role of the humiliated older woman in a new production of Maloja Snake. Although Maria balks at the offer, Valentine persuades her to accept it. And so, Maria rehearses her lines, with Valentine reading the other part, amid the rarefied atmosphere of Sils Maria, an area where, in 1881, the idea of eternal recurrence came to Nietzsche “6,000 feet beyond man and time,” as he wrote. Meanwhile, Maria confronts her mounting insecurities.
Assayas’ narrative becomes even more tangled when he introduces a third woman. Klaus, the director of the Maloja Snake revival, has tapped Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), an edgy, rising young American blockbuster star with a penchant for scandal, to play the character that originally made Maria famous. We initially see Jo-Ann via promotional talk shows and paparazzi videos of her public meltdowns that Valentine finds for Maria on YouTube. One of the film’s most extraordinary scenes shows Valentine and Maria viewing the science-fiction franchise superhero spectacular that features Jo-Ann as a princess prancing around in a shiny metallic bodysuit and delivering lines like, “Zargon is not a mutant, but he understands mutant desire.” Maria responds to this display with bemused incredulity, but Valentine, an enthusiastic admirer of Jo-Ann, extolls the actress’s talents. Discussing the movie later, she insists that Jo-Ann “goes deep into the darker side of her character.” Despite her superpowers, she has no defenses.
Throughout Clouds of Sils Maria, Assayas probes the murkier depths of the female psyche, while contemplating a range of relevant subjects, such as loss of privacy in the Internet age, the intersection of high art and popular culture, the pleasures and pressures of the artistic life, and, of course, cinema itself.
The tones and genres in Clouds of Sils Maria fluctuate considerably as Assayas weaves together multiple layers of reality with a dizzying array of manicured images, volatile impressions, and hyperbolic parallels. When Maria and Valentine rehearse lines, there is often uncertainty as to whether or not the dialogue belongs to the play or to themselves. Since the script increasingly seems to reflect the dynamics between the two women, we cannot discern where their fictional connection ends and their real one begins. The relationship between Maria and Melchior also mirrors the real relationship between Binoche and Assayas. Before he became a film director, Assayas penned the script for Binoche’s first starring role, that of an aspiring young actress on the verge of fame in André Téchiné’s Rendez-vous.
As the boundaries between Maria and Valentine begin to dissolve and their individual personalities overlap, the mysterious permutations of their complex relationship exemplify the various roles we all assume every day. With the proliferation of a mass media-dominated, image-saturated, gossip- and fame-obsessed consumer culture, contemporary life has become progressively more theatrical. Due to the colonization of our leisure time by social networking and the fact that our digital avatars are more immediately accessible than our inner selves, the border between artifice and reality fades ever further.
Above all, Clouds of Sils Maria beautifully captures the essence of the passage of time. Although an aging actress in the spotlight might feel the advancing years more acutely than most people, Maria’s predicament resonates with anxieties that everyone must face, regardless of age, gender, or profession.
Assayas wrote the part of Maria specifically for Binoche after she challenged him to make a film focused on the exploration of femininity. The director creates a restless, intimate, and authentic portrait of a performance artist’s creative process, while incisively commenting on the more ridiculously superficial aspects of the entertainment industry. Yet he also presents a broad canvas onto which viewers can project their own meanings. His self-reflexive, enigmatic, and tantalizingly open-ended character study ultimately eludes definition and assumes many different shapes, thus inviting an infinitude of interpretations. In an interview, he describes Clouds of Sils Maria as “a movie where the invisible is present constantly” and mentions that “what you don’t see is often as important as what you do see.”