In Clouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas presents us with a multi-faceted portrait of a woman confronting the demons of age and obsolescence.
It’s a fascinating piece of work, to a large extent because the two lead actors live up to the challenge set to them. I expected Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart work well as a partnership, and they didn’t disappoint; there was never a moment when I thought one of them was out-acting the other, working in perfect tandem.
The film uses the familiar technique of telling the story in ‘layers’. Many, if not all, scenes are on different levels, filled with subtext, and it all mixes effortlessly with the central story.
Binoche plays respected actress Maria Enders, while Stewart plays her devoted personal assistant, Valentine. Enders is preparing to play an important role: the character of Helena, an older woman in a remake of the play in which she once starred brilliantly as the more powerful younger character, Sigrid.
Valentine is helping her rehearse, and they both travel to the picturesque mountain town of Sils Maria to work on the play. That’s the main ‘layer’ and it makes a perfectly good story on its own. But in this movie, any piece of dialogue can, at the same time, refer to the characters in Enders’ play; to Maria Enders and Valentine themselves; to Binoche and Stewart; or to other actors, movies, directors, or events which are not directly mentioned in the film. Yes, even the real life actors are indirectly referenced (in ways that made the cinema audience chuckle); Olivier Assayas confirmed in an interview that in this feature, the identity of the actual actors is part of the story. It sounds peculiar and confusing, but it’s not; it’s done very smoothly, with the main story easy to follow even while taking in the other layers of reference as if they were background music.
The basic story, which is beautifully told, is about a woman struggling to deal with aging in a profession that doesn’t always respect older women, that may consider them irrelevant. Maria Enders is also trying to be true to her art while making the necessary concessions to fame, the media, the fans, fellow actors, and critics, concessions she resents to some extent. It would be a fine story all by itself. But the added layers provide a sort of ongoing commentary on the story, that makes it much more interesting, and a little strange. Seeing obvious parallels with the lead actors’ real lives is odd, but like the parallels between Maria Enders and the character she is preparing to play, it only adds depth to the story and gives us more insight into what is happening.
Maria’s struggle is made worse when she meets the young, brash, gossip-ridden Hollywood actress, Joanne Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz), who is to take on the role of Sigrid. Joanne is smart, fearless, and media-savvy. At their first meeting she flatters Maria and claims to be an admirer, but may simply be feigning respect. Maria is easy to sympathize with when she looks into Joanne’s background and sees that the rising star displacing her is a crude, grandstanding girl who manipulates the system to her advantage, and who acts in ridiculous sci-fi drivel. However, the film doesn’t let Maria (or the audience) take refuge in the idea of a true artist shaking her head over the surrender to popular crap. Maria is contradicted by the bright and open-minded Valentine, who loves Joanne’s acting and finds her sci-fi films deeper than they seem at first glance. We are left to decide for ourselves whether Maria has good taste or is merely being pretentious; whether Valentine can see beyond the superficial or is merely following the crowd; whether Joanne is helping to destroy film as an art form or taking it in new directions.
Gradually, the difficult relationship between the characters in Enders’ play becomes blurred and overlaid with Enders’ relationship with Valentine, each relationship providing commentary on the other. It is fascinating to watch Binoche simultaneously rehearsing a scene in which her character, Helena, has a confrontation with Sigrid, and in subtext confronting Valentine. It gradually becomes unclear whether she is Helena addressing Sigrid, or Maria addressing Valentine, because it becomes both at once.
Maria’s conflicts over becoming obsolete in the field where she’s excelled, and by extension possibly in her life, causes ongoing friction with Valentine, who tries to help her and encourage her to change her perspective. Finally, in a brief surreal moment, Maria, it is implied, manages to take on Valentine’s perspective and her confidence. As Valentine tries to express at one point, Helena and Sigrid are really the same character; by extension, so are Maria and the young, pragmatic, fearless Valentine. Ultimately these opposites are reconciled, the conflicting layers are brought together, and Maria is able to accept her new reality and move on. It’s not necessarily a happy ending, in terms of Maria’s diminishing professional range, but it is a satisfying one.
This is an enjoyable, well written and well acted, serious and yet consistently entertaining movie from beginning to end.