A poignant statement about fame, aging, and unfulfilled expectations, Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria is an incredible voyage into the life of famed actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche). After many years of playing the role that made her famous on a stage production called “Maloja Snake,” Maria is on her way to Zurich to accept an award in name of the elderly playwright that gave Maria her first break on the stage more than 20 years earlier.
Traveling with Maria, is her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) a young American who obsessively navigates social media looking for news about the latest “in” stars which she relates to her boss who seems inadequately behind the times on all things hinting pop culture; their relationship seems close, but has a hint of prevarication, particularly on Valentine’s side. As Maria and Valentine take the journey by train, the immaculate landscape of the Alps gently gliding by through the windows, they receive the unexpected news that Maria’s mentor Wilhelm Melchior has died, which hits hard the realm of the slightly unsettled actress. Maria later learns from Melchior’s widow that Wilhelm committed suicide, unable to cope with a harrowing illness.
The camera in Clouds of Sils Maria is gentle, few jump-cuts and soft fades separate the different scenes, reminding us immediately of the light fades that exist in the theater, that mark the transition between acts. This combined with the wondrous landscape of Sils Maria, captured by the masterful eye of cinematographer Yorick Le Saux (I Am Love, Only Lovers Left Alive, Arbitrage) and the natural weather phenomena of the Maloja Snake, a cloud bank that slowly makes its way along the Alpine pass resembling a giant boa, transports us to an almost ethereal scenario; a beautiful but muddled mise en scene, that hides a potentially fatal serpent inside its soundless beauty.
An important turn in the plot occurs when Maria is offered to play opposite a young actress Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace-Moretz), a doppelganger of many known twenty-something celebrities who is arrested for drunk driving, has aggressive dealings with the media, and seems to despise everything that has made her famous. The twist in the yarn is that young Jo-Ann will now embody Sigrid, the part that Maria played famously in her debut role as an eighteen -year old stage debutante while Maria is offered to play Helena, a suicidal and oppressive woman who is also Sigrid’s older paramour. Maria knows that the actress that played Helena many years ago died tragically shortly after the play opened, which gives her a sense of foreboding to accept it. Valentine carries out a ponderous task of convincing Maria that the part of Helena is important to re-launch her career, petting her boss’ ego in what seems a desperate attempt to obtain acknowledgement, but also as a form of clever manipulation.
As Maria unwillingly agrees to play Helena and accepts the invitation of her late friend’s widow to stay at their house in Sils Maria, the days go by in a series of nature walks and unannounced rehearsals, in which Maria and Valentine often make us wonder if they are truly reading from a script or discussing their own relationship. Valentine puts Maria frequently on edge by praising the youthful spunk of Jo-Ann, and telling her when Maria complains of this excessive admiration that she “cannot expect to be an accomplished actress and also have the privilege of youth.”
This much is true, but it makes us wonder what is the point of valentine spewing this potentially hurtful dig to Maria. She seems to want to probe deep into Maria’s insecurities in order to perhaps subjugate her, but with what purpose? This question becomes more intricate when Valentine suddenly and mysteriously disappears, leaving Maria alone to face her all too discernable fears.
The film is incredibly beautiful. Assaya’s talent for cleverly depicting the complex insecurities of these women makes for mesmeric storytelling, extracting from Binoche and Grace-Moretz genuine and unpretentious personas. The only blemish on this otherwise flawless film is Stewart’s blank and flavorless performance, which is a tiresome repetition of other past performances. It must be said that the wide rimmed glasses that Stewart employs in an attempt perhaps to appear intellectual, sadly do nothing to captivate the audience, and conversely neither does her acting.