What is it to be feminine in the modern world? According to Hollywood and moviemaking, from whose bosom the triptych of lead females in Clouds of Sils Maria spring, it lies somewhere along the curve of a skintight costume while being able to swear and fight like the boys. Perhaps that’s why Olivier Assayas’ evocative new film is such a godsend for the craft of performance and the actresses who practice it.
Simultaneously authentic and artificial, Clouds of Sils Maria envelopes audiences in its overwhelmingly self-aware mist, consuming its femme triumvirate with the pressures of a distinctively odd vocation. The three central actors, Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloe Grace Moretz, do not inhabit their characters but inform them with an honesty so brutal that the deception of where the fiction begins and ends remains elusive. Binoche’s bio particularly hints at a rarified knowledge about the necessities of having once been the ingénue but now being the matron.
With shadings of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve, Binoche’s Maria Enders must quite literally pass along her filmic legacy to the next generation with all the anxious lamentation inherent with such submission. But like the multi-generational casting, there are layers deeper in Assayas’ screenplay than simply the characters’ ages.
Set around Maria’s career after she turns 40, the internationally famous stage and screen thespian begins Clouds of Sils Maria by traveling to Zurich in order to honor the playwright/filmmaker that gave her a career. Casting Binoche’s Maria at only the age 18 in first his play, Maloja Snake, and then its film adaptation, the auteur Wilhelm Melchior is often mentioned but never seen, as he commits suicide mere hours before Maria Enders arrives in Switzerland.
Devastated by his passing and wistful for her youth, Maria initially waxes nostalgic about the past with her personal assistant, confidant, and possible soul mate, Valentine (Stewart), and then finally allows herself to be lured by a young and hungry European director, Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), into signing onto his new production—a West End revival of Maloja Snake. Except now, Maria will be playing the older half of a two-woman show where she’s a middle-aged businesswoman who is beguiled and ultimately driven to suicide by her enigmatic lover and assistant. The younger part is a star-making role, Maria should know, but now it’s going to TMZ Queen Jo-Ann Ellis (Moretz), and Maria finds herself off-left of spotlight. As Maria and Valentine prepare for the play in the briskness of the Swiss Alps, the meta-fiction threatens to swallow them both as completely as the titular morning fog.
Not necessarily by surprise, Assayas’ thoughtful deliberation on actors becomes a performer’s showcase for its three leads. And while built around Binoche’s inescapably gilded vulnerability that’s been plastered on a Playbill, Stewart and Moretz both also shine with their most revelatory and nuanced work to date. Stewart said at the New York Film Festival press conference following my screening that she was originally offered the part of Jo-Ann, but opted instead for the far less showy Valentine role. It is a prudent and successful subversion by both the director and the actress. While Stewart can more than relate to the stormy tabloid clouds that form around Jo-Ann’s lightning rod throughout the movie, the larger and more taciturn Valentine role allowed Stewart to best supplant her image by severing from it.
Valentine’s relationship with her employer is both that of intimate and provocateur. While it is never precisely detailed how long Maria and Val have known each other, their companionship is equally unquantifiable and profound, with Binoche and Stewart quickening each other’s performance; the blatant irony of the play they’re studying and its parallels to their own symbiosis are unavoidable.
Intentionally influenced by Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s play/film The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, the play-within-a-film Maloja Snake is a lurid tale of codependency that in more mercurial hands could act as an on-the-nose kismet of doom for the film’s orbiting females (see Roman Polanski’s recent Venus in Fur for more). However, Assayas recognizes his protagonists as storytellers interpreting a fiction that is, by nature, shrouding and twisting reality. When Maria Enders was an 18-year-old ingénue, she found a simplistic truth in the material as the strong fatale who beckons a weaker and aged failure to her demise. But with two decades of time to influence her perspective, the pretty words in her hands ring with a falsity that Valentine cannot hear. Life is not over after middle-age, even for an actress.
This distinction is lost on the wonderfully coarse Jo-Ann. Moretz tellingly plays the young adult as the crucified epicenter of pop culture’s starlet dichotomy, located somewhere between the gravitational poles of Jodie Foster and Lindsay Lohan. Obviously an actress who could easily find herself in such alternating media narratives, Moretz marvelously colors her repellent character with an insider’s knowledge, enlivening a talent all but indifferently asleep in her own recent studio star vehicles (If I Stay).
Jo-Ann herself is more of a mystery than the other two characters, as she is only seen through Maria’s eyes, first as the TMZ-stamped harlot on Google searches that finds her swearing at paparazzi, and then as the articulate and ingratiating intellectual with whom Maria has dinner. Like most of the film, this humanness defies the simplification of the Internet age and “talent” while also allowing vicious satire of Hollywood and a woman’s place in it. Tired of being offered X-Men roles, Maria watches Jo-Ann’s own superhero movie (not unlike Moretz’s purple-haired alter-ego) and is horrified by the big budget stupidity masquerading as adult entertainment these days. The only thing more cruelly funny is Stewart, who has starred in more than her fair share of supernatural franchise roles, defending the subtlety and intelligence of a movie about super-powered teenagers on a spaceship.
Yet, as much fun as the movie has with self-aware criticism, it nevertheless remains fixated on femininity in our world, especially for those who come from another planet.
Binoche and Assayas create a searing persona for Maria as a woman who is paradoxically cynical and naïve enough to think things have not changed. Her world is blissfully controlled by Valentine’s careful handling, and the supposedly important moments of Maria’s life literally fly by via jarring and persistent cross-fades. Rather, it is the day-to-day minutia that encompasses her existence, and the sole relationship of importance in it. Time otherwise passes like those Alpine clouds around her, but Maria remains at a defiant standstill.
Clouds of Sils Maria contemplates gender, age, and the media in a time when all those things are in constant flux. Late in the picture, an up-and-coming studio director bemoans that he is of the generation of viral Internet icons like Jo-Ann Ellis. I suspect that Assayas feels somewhat similarly about the industry, as his film removes all the frills of modern day filmmaking when it focuses on a few actresses trying to simply put on a play. The elegance of this old-fashioned objective is transformative for both the cast and the audience. In a sense, they strive for something far more timeless than the supposed immortality of contemporary cinema, thus creating a Maria that is truly for its age.
This review was first published on October 8, 2014.