Enigmatic, tender, subtext-laden, and played with conviction, Clouds of Sils Maria is a heady psychosexual drama steeped in dense anxieties; a multilayered rapture on the subject of woman, performing; and a poetic meditation on acting, aging, and acceptance. A bonbon spiked with malice and wit, it’s a great midlife crisis film.
Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche, Caché, Certified Copy), an actress at the peak of her international career, is asked to perform in a revival of the play that made her famous twenty years earlier. She previously played the role of Sigrid, an alluring young woman who disarms, seduces, and drives her boss Helena to suicide. She departs with her assistant Valentine to rehearse in Sils Maria, a remote region of the Alps. Jo-Ann, a young Hollywood starlet with a penchant for scandal, is to take on the role of Sigrid. Maria finds herself on the other side of the mirror, face-to-face with an assertive, charming woman who is an unsettling reflection of herself.
Clouds of Sils Maria is one of the few films that captures the complex intensity of the diva/personal assistant dynamic. Binoche and Kristen Stewart inhabit their characters’ messy friendship, whether they’re doing the nuts-and-bolts, behind-the-scenes business of career management or getting drunk at a small casino. The prickly, affectionate interplay between them is what makes Clouds of Sils Maria so pleasurable to watch. Each actress is preternaturally high-strung, able to convey momentous emotional stakes without raising her voice above the pitch of conversation. They sharpen their words and fire them at each other like projectiles out of a blowpipe.
As the vulnerable, egotistical Maria, Binoche, one of the best actresses working today, conveys a tantalizing mixture of confidence and unease as she considers her glamorous past and undetermined future. As the bored, agitated Valentine, Stewart fulfills whatever promise she has shown for more than a decade; she seems unable to fake a scene, putting in her third truly wonderful performance after Into the Wild and Adventureland. (Stewart won a César Award, the French equivalent of the Oscars, for best supporting actress, becoming the first American actress and the second American actor to win after Adrien Brody in 2003.)
Writer-director Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours, Carlos) slyly marks the film with an intentional staginess: natural conversations have the ring of written dialogue; every scene ends with a theatrical fade to black. Assayas’s pace is easy, his structure linear, almost the exact opposite of the “Maloja Snake,” a twisting, writhing cloud formation seen in the Alps on the advent of a storm front, referred to in the title of the play. Fuelled by spectacular locations, stunning classical music from Handel, and the appurtenances of stardom, it’s a straightforward character drama about two lonely women drawn together and driven apart by money, affection, and aspiration.
Yet Clouds of Sils Maria is also an arch game of surfaces, looser and sketchier than his previous work, and there seems to be symbolism lurking in every shot. Assayas blatantly channels the acute professional paranoia of All About Eve (without the bite) and the existential crisis of Persona (without the anguish), but adds a dash of Dogville and Assayas-esque meta-mischief, to come up with Clouds of Sils Maria. The film is rife with taut, gnomic gab: Assayas is always hiding around the corner, ready with a cocktail and a conversational icebreaker (“I’m allowed not to be old, as long as I don’t want to be young”).
In his bewitching and melancholy drama, Assayas offers a penetrating look into the female psyche – actresses’ spontaneity and self-doubt, and the mercurial way that they switch from one to the other. He makes keen observations about modern celebrity, screen-devouring blockbusters, Internet gossip culture, and the next generation of actresses, represented here by Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz. While Stewart’s popularity is certainly a part of the puzzle, it never feels like a showcase constructed for her benefit or a complicated pop-culture in-joke: she inspects her own predicament, as it were, from the outside.
As it becomes clear that Maria is lusting after her own shadow (Assayas and Moretz eventually punctuate the point with a gut-punch diatribe on being “washed up”), Clouds of Sils Maria blurs the line between fantasy and reality to illustrate how great art can make the distinction irrelevant. It’s real work to stay in the game as you age, whether that game is the stage or the office.
Poised between melodrama and chamber piece, Clouds of Sils Maria is either too silly or not silly enough, more fun to ponder than to sit through. One watches at a politely admiring, oddly removed distance. It moves as slowly as the oncoming fog, and it falters a bit as it strains for profundity. It swirls with provocative ideas, but they’re more discussed than dramatized.
Yet Clouds of Sils Maria is a world of wonders, cerebrally twisty and emotionally hallucinogenic. Intriguingly ambiguous, handsomely staged, strangely constructed, and fearlessly intelligent, it’s an insider’s look at the film business, the trappings of fame, and the unstoppable, sometimes bone-chilling march of time, pinballing around the notion of what it means to be a woman under a microscope. It’s not where you go, but how you go that matters. You will seldom find a better class of fadeout.