It’s my prerogative to respect films that dare to leave me questioning their ambitions and their outcomes. Clouds of Sils Maria is such a film. At times it gets so caught up in its own meta-narrative perhaps too much so.
Still, this is a story about a middle-aged actress (Juliette Binoche) called upon to return to the script that made her famous but this time in the much more unglamorous role. Her stardom is such that she can pick and choose her work still but that doesn’t make growing older and life in general any easier. She must navigate press junkets, paparazzi, divorce proceedings, and on top of it all the death of a good friend — the man who helped make her famous.
The person keeping Maria sane through every bit of drama and every tiresome ordeal is her personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart). She is also the one who cajoles her client to take the role. My gut further suggests that there are the inklings of All About Eve echoed in Olivier Assayas story between a mature actress and a rising star who is a prima donna scandal maker of the social media age (played by Chloe Grace Moretz).
But still that dynamic proves to be less fruitul and ultimately less interesting than the relationship that is examined between Maria and Valentine. It is their scenes together that are tirelessly engaging because their interactions run the gamut of emotions. How do you begin to define them?
The dividing line between this play that they are bouncing off each other and their actual lives at times feel perilously close as they jump in and out. Somehow in some unknowable way, it seems to reflect real truths about their relationship.
The meta moments are innumerable including those that suggest Binoche’s earlier film Rendez-vous, Chloe Grace Moretz forays into superhero blockbusters, even a passing coincidental remark Stewart makes about a film featuring werewolves. There’s a Harrison Ford film directed by Sydney Pollack (a lah Sabrina) maybe lightly poking fun at how Juliette Binoche and Julia Ormond could easily be confused.
But if nothing else these feel like only slight nods if not pastiche that do not necessarily aid the aspirations of the film. They mean very little. The far more fascinating suggestion is just how closely the characters of Maria and Valentine read to the figures in the script while they practice the lines in the mountains. But it’s not just that. It’s how their conversation organically reveals bits and pieces of their personal philosophies.
So to clarify it’s not reality intersecting with fiction but the fiction within the fiction that creates a greater depth that complicates matters. That’s what makes the film at times beautiful and perplexing. The fact that Valentine evaporates is tantamount to Michelangelo Antioni losing his main character in L’Avventura. Likewise, Valentine disappears into the clouds never to be seen again and that’s far more interesting than any amount of commentary that could have been crammed into the storyline about Stewart’s actual career.
And in truth, this has to be without question the greatest performance of Stewart’s career thus far because there’s something streetwise, nuanced, and clever about her. There’s a strange sense through her wardrobe and demeanor that this is part of Stewart that we are actually seeing, although I’m not sure how true that is. It feels the very essence of “un-acting” if we can coin that phrase.
Binoche, of course, has a lauded spot as one of the eminent stars of European cinema for very good reason with a career that has been held in regard for well nigh 30 years. Somehow she feels like oil and water mixed with the likes of Stewart and Moretz, products of Hollywood blockbusters, but that’s what makes this film an interesting marriage of backgrounds.
Far from being conflicting, the pairing of Binoche and Stewart is ripe with interesting qualities because their differences make the interactions pop. They can be so diametrically opposed. Their age, backgrounds, and at the very core how they view these central characters of Sigrid and Helena in the film within the film. Yet at the same time, they’re so closely tied together and interconnected — their relationship of a star with her personal assistant that proves to be even closer still to that between friends and confidantes.
When Stewart disappears from the story much of what was interesting vanished from the picture but then again because she vanished it made the picture’s denouement more interesting.
By the end, as an audience, it feels as if we have little stake in the trajectory of Maria’s career. It’s hard to care too much about her at this point because she’s been a star, she is a star and she probably still will be one unless her own temperamental nature gets in the way. It doesn’t leave us with the same empathy that comes with All About Eve because our heroine still has a career fully intact.
Clouds of Sils Maria’s immaculate classical music played over elegant tracking shots, matched by soft fade outs between sequences is pleasant if not a tad pretentious. But its ambitions thematically, by the time the curtain falls, feel noticeably more nuanced than its predecessor. It leaves us with something mystifying to ruminate over and that is nearly enough if not wholly satisfying.