DIR/WRI: Olivier Assayas • PRO: Karl Baumgartner, Charles Gillibert, Thanassis Karathanos, Jean-Louis Porchet, Gérard Ruey • DOP: Yorick Le Saux • ED: Marion Monnier • CAST: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz
In Olivier Assayas’s latest interrogation of the nature of performance and identity, Juliette Binoche fearlessly tackles the role of Maria Enders, a celebrated actress who comes face-to-face with several uncomfortable mirrors of her own personality. When Enders makes the fateful decision to accept the role of the older woman in a re-staging of the play that made her famous, with her own original part now taken by a Hollywood starlet, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), it would seem that the stage is set for a backstage showdown between maturity and youth. However, as the film unfolds, it becomes apparent that the greatest challenge to Enders’ sense of self may come, not from Jo-Ann, but from her own personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart).
Although the set-up is complex, Clouds of Sils Maria is Assayas at his most formally accessible. The running time is manageable, the narrative is linear, and the ragged jump-cuts that brought electricity to Irma Vep (1996) have been replaced with perfectly-judged fades to and from black. With the exception of one hallucinatory sequence on a foggy mountain road, the film has a calm surface, calibrated to showcase the uniformly strong performances.
As the veteran star facing an uncertain future, Binoche is completely arresting, minutely charting each ripple of doubt that disturbs Enders’ apparent self-confidence. The degree to which Binoche is (or is not) playing a version of herself is presumably intended to tantalise the audience, although it’s notable that Enders, who is splendidly dismissive of populist science-fiction, takes a harder line than Binoche, whose previous English-speaking role was in Godzilla (2014).
The film’s true revelation is Kristen Stewart, whose mumbled interiority proves remarkably complementary to Binoche’s regal bearing. More than earning her status as the first American to scoop a French Cesar award for Best Actress, Stewart makes something very real, and often quite poignant, of Valentine’s struggle with Enders, the friend/employer/idol, who both awes and stifles her. While Julianne Moore and Mia Wasikowska made a delightfully grotesque pantomime of the star/assistant relationship in David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars (2014), Assayas, Binoche and Stewart approach the same topic with greater analytical perception as well as greater sympathy.
Moretz has what is necessarily the smallest and most cartoonish of the lead roles, but she attacks it with gusto. Brief “found footage” glimpses of Jo-Ann’s near feral volatility are totally convincing, as is her honeyed poise at other moments. She and Binoche have a great scene late in the film when the gulf between Jo-Ann’s personae threatens, briefly, to close – although Assayas is, of course, too cool-headed to permit a full showbiz tantrum to appear in unmediated.
As much as Clouds of Sils Maria is about its central characters’ negotiation of “roles”, it’s also about the way in which Assayas tackles generic convention, inhabiting it while observing it from without. Clouds of Sils Maria is as much a backstage melodrama as Demonlover (2002) and Boarding Gate (2007) were “erotic thrillers” – that is to say, theoretically only. The result is that Clouds of Sils Maria can occasionally feel rather dry, with what would remain subtext in a film like All About Eve (1950) or The Star (1952) openly discussed between Assayas’s characters.
Although Clouds of Sils Maria is an unapologetically talky film, the good news is that the talk is consistently stimulating, especially when delivered by the unexpected but terrific pairing of Binoche and Stewart. Beyond that, by creating characters with self-awareness enough to elevate subtext to text, Assayas opens up the possibility for deeper, perhaps mythic, dimensions to exist in the unspoken realms of the film. Grander, intangible themes are persistently evoked by Assayas’s landscape shots of the Swiss Alps, a location as crisply bracing and coolly mysterious as the film itself.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Clouds of Sils Maria is released 15th May 2015