Forget the undeserved Birdman (2014) hype, Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria is the must-see movie about artistic angst. In this hypnotic backstage drama, Juliette Binoche stars as Maria Enders, an established veteran actress who signs up for a revival of a play that brought her fame 20 years earlier.
The play is about an intense erotic relationship between a young girl and an older woman. Maria played the young girl in the original production, and now she is asked to play the older woman in the revival. She is hesitant, but her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) insists that the revival would be good for her career, and that Jo-Ann (Chloë Grace Moretz), the actress taking over the role of the young girl, is serious about the part. Jo-Ann wants to reinvent her public image after a string of scandals, and Maria, with an impending divorce and other personal demons, isn’t in a position to judge.
A significant portion of the film revolves around Maria and Valentine as they rehearse for the play. In between line readings, they have philosophical conversations about aging, pop culture, memory, love, and everything else in between. Binoche and Stewart’s electrifying chemistry brings to mind Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) trilogy and Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre (1981). Their scenes remind us how captivating a simple conversation can be.
The film, to borrow a term coined by Nathaniel Rogers of The Film Experience, is a dream come true for “actressexuals”. At a time when audiences are starved for substantial films about women, Assayas fills the screen with three captivating female characters. Binoche, Stewart, and Moretz represent three generations of actresses, and to see them interact with one another is a rare treat.
Maria often reflects on her legacy, and Binoche captures the anxiety of aging in a youth-obsessed society, as well as the acceptance of a life full of accomplishments. Binoche gives a bold performance that nearly borders on self-parody, but by the end, we’re certain that she has created a unique character and isn’t just playing a meta-version of herself.
The same can be said about Stewart. Valentine exhibits the same tomboy punk-rock fashion sense we’ve seen from Stewart in the tabloids, but she is a complex character with mysterious motivations. Since the Twilight (2008) franchise, Stewart has successfully transitioned into a fine young actress. With her performance in this film, as well as in recent independent productions like Still Alice (2014) and Camp X-Ray (2014), Stewart all but demands that we take her seriously, and we do without any reservations.
Moretz has a blast with Jo-Ann, the stereotypical off-the-rails Hollywood starlet. Jo-Ann is basically the opposite of Moretz, who has managed to star in smart films and is never photographed in the tabloids. The contrast is fun, and Moretz captures Jo-Ann’s icy traits without ever being condescending toward the many real-life actresses she emulates.
At times, the film can be pretentious. The meta-commentary, while interesting for those who know about the stars, is obnoxious. It’s been done before in countless films and television series, and at this point, the ironic self-awareness just takes us out of the narrative. The casual references to Twilight didn’t excite me as much as the wonderful scenes in which Maria and Valentine bond over a bottle of wine.
When Assayas focuses on the riveting conversations between the characters, in particular Maria and Valentine, the film is as good as anything he’s ever made. When he over-intellectualizes with opaque symbolism, he bites off more than he can chew. The third act contains a twist that brings to mind Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), and as intellectually stimulating as it may be for some viewers, it’s not exactly satisfying.
Unlike most filmmakers, Assayas gets better with age. There’s no denying the superior quality of his recent films. The subject matter of Clouds of Sils Maria is reminiscent of Assayas’ ‘90s art-house hit Irma Vep (1996), but Clouds of Sils Maria is the better film. The conversations between the characters are more engaging, and the construction of the plot is more comprehensible. When all is said and done, Clouds of Sils Maria may be Assaysas’ definitive backstage drama, even with its disappointing denouement.
Assayas’ approach to the actors-playing-actors genre avoids the annoying narcissism of similar films. Less Birdman and more Bergman, Clouds of Sils Maria delves deeply into the complex psychology of its characters. Whether it’s the erotic tension between Maria and Valentine or Assayas’ broader commentary on the nature of performance and role-playing in everyday life, there’s a lot to contemplate. Viewers who aren’t interested in analyzing what, exactly, the clouds of Sils Maria are supposed to symbolize needn’t worry. Binoche, Stewart, and Moretz are enchanting, and they elevate the film high above those hazy clouds.
Note: There were no significant extras with this DVD.