Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria” starts on a train, with the camera and audience moving side to side with the shaking actors on the jerky train. Here, celebrated stage and screen actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) and her personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) are heading to Zurich.
The film centers on the struggles of this aging actress and her personal assistant. Legendary film actress Maria Enders struggles to stay relevant by agreeing to star in a revival of the play that launched her career 20 years earlier – but instead of playing her original role as Sigrid, the young fearless girl who compels her boss, Helena, to suicide, she is asked to take on the less flattering part of the older Helena, while the young and relevant star Jo-Anne Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz) lands Sigrid.
Maria heads to the romantic rolling hills of the Swiss Alps with her assistant to rehearse the part. Hidden by greasy hair, large glasses and questionable tattoos, Stewart really comes into her own as a young women riddled with conflicting optimism for the world and doubts about herself, which nicely complements the anxieties of time and age that plague her employer.
Binoche brings a tantalizing mixture of confidence and unease to her character, as Maria considers her place in the present between her glamorous past and her undetermined future. Throughout the film she slips in and out of character of the “self-destructive” and “insecure” Helena, while running lines with her assistant Valentine, reflecting her anxieties of becoming this character who in her younger eyes had always seemed washed up and pathetic.
Throughout the film, the director plays with the line between staged theater and reality. Scenes fade in and out, and as the actors begin to speak the audience is left with uncertainty as to whether the dialogue belongs to the play or to Maria and Valentine themselves; often we cannot tell where their fictional relationship ends and their real one begins. Binoche’s layered performance unfolds against an expressive theatrical backdrop of billowing clouds and classical instruments – emphasizing the inseparability of Maria’s theater life from her reality. This is further enhanced by separating the film into three sections.
“Clouds of Sils Maria” truly comes alive in its convincingly nuanced relationship between Maria and Valentine. Binoche’s more animated, lively register subtly but effectively contrasts and enhances Stewart’s effortless style. Maria initially seems to have adopted a role as a maternal figure for Valentine, a role that seems to progress romantically with the film, paralleling the relationship of the women in the play the two rehearse lines for. As the relationship develops, Maria grows to resent Valentine’s sensibilities of a younger generation as well as her personification of Maria’s disconnect from the modern, ‘real’ world. In line with Maria’s fears, it is the young Stewart, rather than Binoche, who lingers in your mind when the tense scenes between the two end, with Valentine and her droopy, slouched body language and dorky spectacles somehow holding more promise and intrigue in the eyes of the viewer and Maria’s anxieties faded into the background (the director frequently stages his scenes with either Maria or Valentine in the foreground and the other in the background).
Assayas goes one step further by using Moretz’s character, Jo-Anne, as another younger women who complements and inflames Maria’s internal crisis. Her character does this in a similar way to Stewart’s in that Jo-Anne emphasizes the disconnect Maria now has from the mainstream and the perspective of the youth and serves as a reminder of Maria’s lack of relevance as a star power as it has now shifted to her. Jo-Anne is the new, modern Sigrid and any memory of Maria’s Sigrid has disappeared. While this is perhaps Moretz’s most successful role to date, she still falls short of the roles played by Binoche and Stewart. Moretz conveys her character shallowly and ineffectively, faults which are exacerbated when juxtaposed against the extremely in-depth and convincing characters of Maria and Valentine.
“Clouds of Sils Maria” would perhaps benefit from providing the audience with further exploration into the background and identities of its supplementary characters, such as Jo-Anne. As it stands, Jo-Anne, and to an extent Valentine, are fundamentally there to complement Maria’s character and personal crisis and little is understood of them beyond this function.
The cinematography and the soundtrack of the film dictate the viewers’ emotions and perceptions even more so than do the nuanced relationships of the female characters. In one scene Valentine drives around so many bends along a descending mountain road that she has to get out of her car and throw up. Meanwhile the soundtrack batters us with aggressive metallic-rock music and foggy images of mountains and winding roads and bushes melting into Valentine’s face nauseates us. Conversely, in the many intermission periods depicting a change of scene/time, long montages of rolling hills and billowing clouds drift across the scene to the calming sound of chamber music. Scenes also often begin without warning. In one, we jump unheeded to a clip from Jo-Ann’s latest blockbuster film in which she wears a metallic jumpsuit and 9-inch heeled boots and discusses her love for the mutant “Zargon.”
The film begins with the death of Maria’s mentor and friend Wilhelm, the author of the play around which the plot of the film is centered, and ends with a eulogy for the deceased and for all that has been stolen by the young. The majority of the film’s two hours is dedicated to scenes involving Binoche and Stewart brilliantly engaging and digging deeply into each other‘s characters – so for anyone who enjoys watching these two excellent actresses grapple with the issues associated with their characters, and with the issues of the modern generation, there is much to enjoy. Their give-and-take and the fluid energy in their relationship carries the film and will inspire all those who witness it.