Directed by: Olivier Assayas.
Written by: Olivier Assayas.
Starring: Juliette Binoche (Maria Enders), Kristen Stewart (Valentine), Chloë Grace Moretz (Jo-Ann Ellis), Lars Eidinger (Klaus Diesterweg), Johnny Flynn (Christopher Giles), Angela Winkler (Rosa Melchior), Hanns Zischler (Henryk Wald), Brady Corbet (Piers Roaldson).
Art imitates life, and life imitates art, in an endless loop in Olivier Assayas’ newest films, Clouds of Sils Maria, a great “backstage drama” that really isn’t a backstage drama at all. The story is about Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) a famous actress, who got her big break at the age of 18, playing a younger woman who destroys the older woman she works for, and is having an affair with. The play, and then the film based on the play, was written by Wilhelm Melchior, a revered playwright and filmmaker, whose work sounds much like the work of Ingmar Bergman – a major influence on Assayas in general, and in particular here. Melchoir is a bit reclusive, so Maria is on the way to Zurich to accept a prize on his behalf – when she gets the news that he has died. She has no time to be devastated however – as she has demands from all sides when she arrives at the festival. Soon, she finds herself agreeing to be in a revival of the play that made her famous – but this time, not playing the glamourous, sexually powerful younger woman – a role that she identifies with – but rather the weaker, pathetic older woman who gets destroyed, a role she doesn’t. The younger woman will be played by Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Mortez), a young, scandal plagued starlet of some ridiculous looking blockbuster, looking for a little artistic credibility.
But let’s backup for a second here – because I realize now that I did not mention that the film opens not with Maria or Jo-Ann, but rather with Valentine (Kristen Stewart – the star of a ridiculous blockbusters, looking for a little artistic credibility), as Maria’s personal assistant. She’s on a train with Maria, juggling two different cellphones, setting up interviews, keeping everything organized, and trying to protect Maria from everyone who wants a piece of her. The first act of the movie is all action at that festival – and takes place over the course of a day. Maria has to deal with her grief, photo-shoots, an old co-star she hates (Hanns Zischler), and the younger director who wants to stage the new version of that classic play (Lars Eidinger). The second act settles down – as Maria and Valentine retreat into the mountains, to the house of Melchoir, so that Maria can re-learn the play that made her a star, just from the perspective of the other role. The two women run lines together – with Valentine, of course, playing the part of the personal assistant, while being the personal assistant, as well as debate the play, art in general, their lives, and how art and life interact with each other. We barely see Jo-Ann Ellis at all – except in some drunken YouTube clips, and an out of context scene in a big budget sci-fi movie that looks ridiculous. She will enter the movie, in a real way, late in the film – and give Assayas his third complex female character in the film.
There are, of course, many ways that real life influences Clouds of Sils Maria, and how the real life in the movie influences Maloja Snake, the play within the movie. It should be pointed out that basically the title of the movie and the title of the play within the movie mean the same thing – the Maloja Snake is a cloud formation at Melchoir’s remote house, which of course is in Sils Maria. Binoche is playing an actress, who superficially resembles herself – right down to the type of roles that made her famous, and the type of roles she is doing now. Stewart, who since Twilight ended, has tried to prove to idiots that she can really act (as if there was ample proof of that already in films like Panic Room, Undertow, Into the Wild, Adventureland and yes the Twilight movies where she made a horrible, nearly unplayable role far more interesting than it was in the books, even if she couldn’t single handedly save the franchise). Here Valentine is outwardly the same type of Kristen Stewart performance that her haters jump on – she is full of nervous ticks, she won’t stop touching her hair, etc. – except that this time she is given a role with something more to play. The film even gives her a rather passionate speech in defense of the type of movies that made Stewart famous in the first place – basically saying that all art, both high and low, is built on clichés and archetypes, so what makes one greater than the other? The two play off each other, and the actress deliver radically different types of performances – with Binoche going bigger and more external, and Stewart going more internal. In its way, it reminded me of the scenes between Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix in The Master – which also highlighted two radically different acting styles that messed beautifully. Mortez shows up late in the movie – and does a great job with Jo-Ann Ellis, who unlike the other two characters has less self-awareness, but that’s necessary for the film’s final moments with Maria.
The film is about art, and how it’s different for everyone, and different depending on who you’re working with. Whatever Melchoir meant with his play when he wrote it – which was a solitary activity – it becomes something different in the hands of different directors and actors. Even with the same actor, like Maria, in the same play, albeit in different, it becomes a different play – based on everything she brings to it. There is a lot of debate about the meaning of the play – and no one sees it in the same way, as they all approach it from their own vantage point, which informs their reading of the play. Maria is challenged by this, as she always saw the play, and by extension, herself, in one way – and is being forced to see things now in another.
I mentioned Ingmar Bergman earlier in the review, and it’s an apt comparison. You could see this as a Bergman film from the 1960s or 1970s, and the film is very much in the “European Art House” vein – especially a late movie twist that Assayas never bothers to explain, because he really doesn’t need to – he’s simply done with one part of the movie, so he ends it. Clouds of Sils Maria is about the never ending loop – of art imitating life and back again, a cycle that never stops. It is also the best film I have seen so far in 2015 – an endless fascinating, enjoyable movie that I cannot wait to delve into again.