Binoche. Stewart. Moretz. The posters for Clouds of Sils Maria blare these names. They seem unlikely bedfellows, but that’s exactly the point. Why shouldn’t Chloe Grace Moretz get to star alongside Juliette Binoche? So much baggage gets in the way. Moretz makes Kick-Ass 2 and Carrie, and Binoche worked with Kieslowski, Kiarostami and Haneke. We know this, and director Olivier Assayas knows we know this. There’s a lot of knowing here; the film is so arch it’s a wonder it doesn’t sprain an eyebrow. Films about filmmaking are summarily dismissed as self-important at best, masturbatory at worst (The same accusers tend to forget about Singin’ In The Rain, which almost single-handedly dismisses their arguments, but we digress). Clouds of Sils Maria is treading on familiar ground, but Assayas isn’t being flippant. We’ve seen the kind of work these women can do, so Assayas brings them together to compare and contrast.”
Binoche plays Maria Enders, a 40-something actress being courted to star in a stage production of a play entitled Maloja Snake. She’s been asked to play the role of a businesswoman losing control because of her desire for a young manipulative intern. The intern role made Maria’s career two decades before, so the novelty of her playing the older role peaks interest, like the three names juxtaposed on the film poster. With Moretz’s rehab-ed ingenue Jo-Ann taking the intern role, the opportunities for conflict are set in place. We first meet Enders on a train to Switzerland, where she and her accompanying assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) are travelling to accept an award on behalf of Wilhelm Melchior, Maria’s mentor and writer of Maloja Snake. As Maria resolves to avoid projects with prolonged bouts of greenscreen work, and the pair bemoan the rumour mill (“I thought we agreed we hated the Internet.”), Assayas’ film never stops winking at its audience. Sharing with screen with Binoche, one of the greats of her generation, is perennial punchline Kristen Stewart. The girl is aiming high; she needs to if she’s going to escape her typecast rut. People forget that Twilight was a laughable phenomenon before being adapted for the screen, so her soppy Bella can’t be blamed on the actress alone. Clouds Of Sils Maria is proof that she can act; Valentine’s practicality is a stark contrast to Maria’s’ intensity and Jo-Ann’s aloofness, and it requires Stewart to walk a line between human anchor and ethereal guide. Is she conscious, or merely a conscience? There’s an ambiguity to Valentine’s role in Assayas’ script that may frustrate some viewers, with a second act turn-about that will divide opinion, but Stewart’s turn keeps us on side regardless.
Despite being shot in English, the film has been made far away from Hollywood influence. Glamour is in steady supply from co-financiers Chanel, but initial style segues into earthier domesticity as Maria and Valentine retreat to the Sils Maria in the Alps to rehearse Maloja Snake, as well as to watch the cloud formation from which the play gets its name. As rehearsals go on, tensions come to the fore. Valentine proves both a capable foil and companion to Maria, with hints of jealousy, desire and cabin fever creeping in. Thematic comparisons will be readily drawn to All About Eve or Mulholland Drive, but they do Sils Maria no favours. It’s too rich and warmly made to be readily lumped in with any one film. Besides, neither Valentine nor Jo-Ann are a threat to Maria; her issues stem from her own passing years. The perils for actresses over 40 slipping through the cracks were recently covered in The Congress (with only a modicum of success), but this film grasps a nettle with little to cloud the message. Nominally, the film is a golden ticket to the likes of Stewart and Moretz. The latter is another young actress suffering from over-exposure, albeit with plenty proof she can deliver. She pastiches her own image in a role which overrides her inherent squeaky-cleanliness, veering between harassed and hellcat. That said, the heart of the film is Binoche, who delivers another typically marvellous performance, by turns elegant, brittle and oddly pathetic. Her screams are piercing, her laughs infectious. The fact that 51-year-old Binoche is playing a role written for a 40-year-old suggests a hopefulness on Assayas’ part. Is 51 the new 40 for actresses? Is it getting easier for actresses for maintain their careers as the years go on? We can hope so. In any case, Clouds of Sils Maria is the most wonderfully self-reflexive piece of filmmaking in recent memory. Assayas’ typically bold and intelligent picture covers a lot of prevalent themes and manages to express them vividly. The message might be obvious, but we can’t really complain when Assayas hits his target right on the nose.