In just about anyone else’s hands, Clouds of Sils Maria could try one’s patience. A character study of an actress revisiting one of her earliest theatrical triumphs—except this time, she’s playing the older, more tragic character, not the young, confident beauty—the latest from French filmmaker Olivier Assayas (Carlos, Summer Hours) risks being such an insular, rarified project that it never escapes its navel-gazing concerns about creativity and celebrity. But Assayas largely transforms such potentially precious material into something far more rewarding and, ultimately, ambivalent. It’s not new for an artist to create a work about the nature of making art, but Clouds of Sils Maria soon becomes a larger portrait about how we interpret (and reinterpret) that art based on our own experiences and biases.
Debuting at this year’s Cannes Film Festival—and set for a 2015 U.S. release in the through IFC Films—Clouds of Sils Maria stars Juliette Binoche as Maria Enders, a world-renowned actress of stage and screen who’s recently been part of a comic-book movie that’s only boosted her popularity. Assayas’s construction of Maria hints early on that this won’t be a typical show business snapshot. Neither a screaming diva nor a faultless artiste, the actress is at a crossroads, busy with divorce proceedings that are being conducted by phone while preparing to speak at a tribute for Wilhelm Melchior, a revered playwright who gave Maria her start in Maloja Snake, a play (and later a film) that starred her as the younger partner in a workplace lesbian relationship that ends in suicide for the older woman.
On the way to the tribute, though, Maria and her personal assistant, Val (Kristen Stewart), discover that the elderly Wilhelm has himself committed suicide. Maria’s grief is interrupted by news that Klaus (Lars Eidinger), an up-and-coming filmmaker, wants to mount a new staging of Maloja Snake, hoping to cast her as the older woman, Helena. Maria is taken aback: She so identifies with the younger role (Sigrid) that she can’t imagine playing Helena. Klaus disagrees, countering that, as he interprets the play, Helena is the woman Sigrid eventually becomes, and so it makes sense that Maria return to the play as the older character.
The conflict between Klaus’s and Maria’s reading of the play’s characters and Wilhelm’s intentions is a crucial key to unlocking what Assayas has in mind with Clouds of Sils Maria. Although the film feels indebted to the intimate, psychologically intense work of Ingmar Bergman—even Wilhelm’s home in a remote section of the Alps seems to be a nod to Bergman’s secluded, small-scale life—this isn’t Assayas’s take on Persona, which featured an actress who merges psychically with a woman close to her. (There are, however, some teasing similarities between the two films that Assayas incorporates playfully.)
Despite its deft playing with identity—young, old, pursuer, pursued—Clouds of Sils Maria is more concerned with how everything eventually comes down to perception. All of the film’s main characters voice their differing opinions on a range of subjects, including whether the young, irresponsible starlet (Chloë Grace Moretz) who will take on the role of Sigrid in the revamped Maloja Snake is a brat, a prodigy or simply misunderstood. But because Assayas never tips his hand to how we should feel about any of those opinions, Clouds of Sils Maria becomes an intriguing mystery of perspective. Much of the film finds Maria and Val camped out in the Alps rehearsing the play, Val reading Sigrid’s lines, which leads to many debates about whether Helena is a fool or a victim undone by a doomed love affair. The more Maria plays the older character, the more convinced she is that Helena is ridiculous, but is that because she can’t accept that she’s no longer young enough to play the more assertive Sigrid? And is Val’s fondness for Helena a product of being young and not having to identify with the character on a personal level? Assayas won’t say, and so we’re left to wrestle with these questions on our own, recognizing that we all take on roles (or have them thrust upon us) that can leave us reappraising our strongly held assumptions about ourselves.
Unlike other tales of famous actors, Clouds of Sils Maria intentionally downplays the glitziness to offer a more lifelike depiction of everyday celebrity. Just as Maria eschews clichés, Val is a unique creation, although Assayas’s playfulness is again on display in his conception of the character. Stewart portrays Val as a matter-of-fact assistant and confidante to Maria, acting more as a friend than an employee. Maria relies on Val but isn’t overly needy, except when she comments in a passive-aggressive way that she suspects Val doesn’t think she’s a great actress. But the twist of the knife comes when Moretz’s starlet, Jo-Ann Ellis, enters the picture. Famous for being the star of a dopey Hollywood fantasy franchise, Jo-Ann initially earns the ire of Maria, who sees nothing redeeming in the performance. Val comes to Jo-Ann’s defense, arguing for the merits of playing a strong female character in a blockbuster. It’s impossible not to interpret Val’s argument as a sly commentary on Stewart’s own escape from the Twilight franchise, which made her a star but lost her artistic respect. But Assayas doesn’t seem to be doing this just for a snarky laugh: Considering how good Stewart is in the role of Val, a woman whose own identity is so connected to her boss’s livelihood, Clouds of Sils Maria questions our own preconceived notions of the Jo-Anns of the movie industry. Are they just vacuous pretty faces? Or do they have the depth to be Kristen Stewart?
A movie of internal puzzles, Clouds of Sils Maria consistently hints at something more sinister or provocative just around the corner. Since Maloja Snake involved an unexpected lesbian relationship, Assayas toys with our expectation that perhaps the close bond between Maria and Val could lead to something more. And the secluded home where the two rehearse, surrounded by ominous mountains, feels like the sort of environment where powerful, primal forces could be unleashed. In the final analysis, Assayas perhaps promises more than he delivers, as the film stumbles a bit in its closing stretches. (Plus, while Assayas keeps the events we witness ambiguous—so as to leave them open to interpretation—Moretz’s performance remains too one-note, her Jo-Ann a rather charmless twit, which upsets the delicate balance the filmmaker has constructed.) And yet, Clouds of Sils Maria finds plenty of fertile terrain in what should be well-trod turf. It’s a movie so psychologically rich that its outer trappings soon give way to universal anxieties about what exactly defines us. With a film this attuned to the complexity (and unraveling) of identity, it’s barely a surprise when one of the characters literally disappears from the story.
Director: Olivier Assayas
Writer: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz, Lars Eidinger, Johnny Flynn
Release Date: Screening at the 2014 Beirut International Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.