Director Olivier Assayas’s new film The Clouds of Sils Maria is a stark meditation on the ephemeral nature of youth and the self-destructive nature of desire, thinly disguised within the narrative of a Hollywood melodrama. The film brings Assayas together with Juliette Binoche, who has collaborated with him on and off for nearly thirty years. It’s a meta-commentary driven exploration that is constantly trying to function on multiple levels. Unfortunately, the film takes pains to put these thematic layers on display, accentuating its own contrivance.
Binoche, probably still best known for her work in the Three Colors films in the mid-‘90s, stars as Maria Enders, an aging Hollywood star whose career was launched after she starred in the play and film adaptation of Maloja Snake, in which a middle-aged businesswoman is seduced and manipulated by her young female assistant. While traveling with her own young assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart, Twilight), to accept a lifetime achievement award on behalf of the recently deceased playwright, Maria is approached to star in a revival of Maloja Snake, this time in the role of the elder woman. Valentine convinces Maria to take the part, where she will play opposite Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz, Kick-Ass), an unstable but talented young starlet.
The lion’s share of the film belongs to Binoche and Stewart, who retreat to a secluded mountain hideaway to run lines and develop Maria’s character. As they become increasingly isolated, and as Maria delves deeper into the character, her relationship with Valentine becomes increasingly intense. It doesn’t take long for art and life to crystallize into perfect mirrors for each other, until the lines of Maloja Snake begin to describe Maria and Valentine to an almost absurd extent. Bizarrely, this motif is never taken to its natural conclusion: a blending reality of with fiction. Instead, Assayas keeps the audience aware of when Maria and Valentine are play acting and when they are speaking as themselves, seemingly content to wink at the fact that the play’s lines are applicable to both realities. This leaves the analog between art and life feeling simultaneously obvious and somehow unfinished.
Time might be the main theme on display here, but the cathartic overlapping of life and art becomes increasingly prominent. The world of Hollywood proves a surprisingly apt setting, as its gilded walls are unkind to aging actors, specifically women. Assayas delights in reality’s encroachment on art, using not only Maria’s reality to affect her performance in Maloja Snake, but also using Binoche and Stewart’s place in the private and public consciousness to great effect. Assayas wrote the film that gave Binoche her first leading role in Rendez-vous, parallelling Maria’s relationship to the Majola Snake playwright. Stewart’s much-publicized inter-marital indiscretions and transition from the more two-dimension world of vampire films into more complex roles is mirrored in Moretz’s Jo-Ann.
Where the film falls short is in providing a satisfying narrative core for these ideas to satellite. The film is a compelling map of concentric realities, but one can’t help but feel Assayas’s distraction away from the surface narrative, leaving it unpolished and clunky.
The performances are, on the whole, fabulous. Binoche captures the grace and desperation of age effortlessly, and Stewart continues to impress. Their chemistry is palpable and sculpted in a manner that’s agonizing and perfectly restrained, it’s just a shame there’s such little road for them to cover. Assayas’s script is thick with intellectual discussions of art and character, but thin on narrative. The fact that there is tension at all in this piece is a testament to the work of the actors. This is nowhere more evident than in Chloe Grace Moretz’s Jo-Ann. Moretz does wonders with what she’s given; Jo-Ann is little more than a parabolic portrayal of unstable youth, an almost laughable distillation of current celebrity culture. It’s a role that could almost be replaced with a floating placard that tells Maria, “You’re not young any more,” which is arguably a function Hollywood starlets inadvertently serve. Yet another case of intellectual exploration over narrative substance.
The Verdict: 2 out of 5
The Clouds of Sils Maria is intellectual to a fault. The thin veneer of Hollywood melodrama is worn away incredibly quickly, leaving the characters operating in something of a narrative vacuum. The wonderful performances elevate a script that can only be described as masturbatory, but the movie never quite coheres into anything meaningful, feeling like a series of scenes connected by thematic twine rather than a story capable of sustaining those heavy thematic ambitions. The film feels almost essayistic in a sense. Binoche and Stewart save the film from complete intellectual obfuscation, pouring soul into a script that is infinitely more interested in its own thematic resonance than the film itself.