An ever-shifting director, always hard to pin down, Olivier Assayas has been steadily building a fascinatingly elusive body of work that seems to constantly, continuously engage itself in dialogue. Hence, Clouds of Sils Maria seems born out of a desire to work again with the great Juliette Binoche after 2008's uneven Summer Hours, but it also exists in relation to Mr. Assayas' two previous films, the based-on-true-events Carlos and the loosely autobiographical Something in the Air, works that dealt with the idealistic ideologies of social, political and personal revolution.
While Clouds of Sils Maria isn't a period piece, taking place in our days, its roots are squarely set in the 1970s; it's a film that harks back to the past and to the sense that a future that once had stretched out endlessly before you has by now started constricting, disappearing. As Sandy Denny once sang, "who knows where the time goes?", and that is the question asked by the character played by Ms. Binoche, actress Maria Enders, as the world hits her full blast in the opening minutes.
In the midst of a messy divorce, as she is travelling to Switzerland to attend a tribute to Wilhelm Melchior, the playwright and director who launched her into stardom, Maria is informed that he has been found dead near his house in the mountain village of Sils Maria. Melchior had made Maria's career by casting her at 19 in Maloja Snake, a fictional play-within-the-film that clearly references Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and The Blue Angel: a heady brew of desire and ambition between two differently-aged women, where Maria played young go-getter Sigrid, an intern whose intoxicating presence so turns company director Helena's head that the older woman develops a life-destroying crush on her.
30 years later, Wilhelm dies just as a hotshot young director (Lars Eidinger) invites Maria to revisit the play, now in the role of Helena - effectively going full circle from one role to the other, from young, wide-eyed arriviste to desperate, deadened, woman left behind. At its heart, then, Clouds of Sils Maria is all about Maria, and her realisation she can longer hold, or go back to, who she was. The same life experience that has made her grow as into an acclaimed film and stage star are also holding her back from accepting that things and times change.
A cleverly hidden woman's picture if ever there was one, slyly invoking Joseph L. Mankiewicz's All About Eve in its attention to the unstoppable flow of time, Clouds of Sils Maria sets up constant series of opposites or dichotomies that only underline how the world around Maria has changed since her stage debut: youth/old age, stage/screen, America/Europe, truth/lie, the open air of the mountains/the closed box of the stage, performance/real life.
Maria deals with all this as she is left alone by the death of the man she thought of as a mentor and guide, made aware that she is also a brand that needs to be managed, scared by the realisation of her own mortality, energized by the wish to prove herself still relevant. It's a delicate balancing act of a role triumphantly carried by Ms. Binoche in a superb performance, suggesting an actual, strong personal investment in the character.
But it's not just the actress's performance that holds Clouds of Sils Maria together; it's also the way Mr. Assayas surrounds her with two cannily chosen, young American actresses that almost seem to playing two different sides of her conscience: the integrity and the sellout, the seriousness and the slumming. Kristen Stewart, of Twilight fame, plays Maria's assistant and confidant Val, while Chloë Grace Moretz is Jo-Ann Ellis, the Lindsay Lohan-ish trainwreck cast opposite her as Sigrid in the new production of Maloja Snake. As Maria retreats to Wilhelm's mountain cabin to prepare for taking on Helena with Val, the play-within-the-film becomes a hall of mirrors where the actress' own internal misgivings and memories of playing Sigrid are highlighted by the lines being run between actress and assistant, effectively transforming themselves into both characters. In this section of the film, Ms. Stewart becomes a "voice of reason" simultaneously grounding Maria and making her terribly aware of all that's at stake.
Mr. Assayas handles it fluidly, keeping the camera closely trained on his actresses, his camera suggesting Maria's restlessness, with the glorious Swiss Alps becoming more than just backdrops for a character who must shed her old (snake) skin and learn to live with a new one. It's almost offensive how such an apparently simple film about an aging actress can contain such multitudes inside itself - it's a glorious modern classic from a director who seems to be getting better with age.
CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA
France, Germany, Switzerland, USA, 2014
cast Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz, Lars Eidinger, Johnny Flynn, Brady Corbet, Hanns Zischler, Angela Winkler, Nora von Waldstätten
director and screenwriter Olivier Assayas; cinematographer Yorick le Saux (colour, widescreen); designer François-Renaud Labarthe; costumes Jürgen Doering; editor Marion Monnier; producer Charles Gillibert; production companies CG Cinéma in co-production with Pallas Film, CAB Productions and Vortex Sutra, in association with Ezekiel Film Production, ARTE France Cinéma, ZDF/ARTE, Orange Studio, RTS and SRG SSR
screened August 14th 2014, Teatro del Casinò Kursaal, Locarno Film Festival press screening, and June 23rd 2015, Lisbon, DVD