Clouds of Sils Maria is an intriguing puzzle box of a movie, but it's not like most other cinematic puzzle boxes. The surface-level plot is fairly straightforward (in fact, relatively little “happens” in the traditional sense), and there are no tricky bits of non-linear storytelling involved. However, director Olivier Assayas (making one of his rare forays into English-language filmmaking) slowly begins to transform the movie into an increasingly complex collection of metatextual complications, and the story gathers a an abundance of new shades as it proceeds.
Once upon a time, esteemed actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche, Code Unknown) won great acclaim for playing the role of “Sigrid” in a play called Maloja Snake. The play told the story of Sigrid's complicated romantic relationship with an older woman named Helena, who is driven to suicide after realizing that Sigrid has been taking advantage of her. Now, hotshot theatre director Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger, Everyone Else) is eager to stage a new version of the play, and has asked Maria to consider playing the role of Helena. Maria bristles at the notion that she's now being asked to play the “sad older woman,” but takes some time to consider the role and debates the merits of the part with her loyal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart, Adventureland).
The deeper the film goes, the more you realize how deliberate and canny the casting is. Some things are obvious from the start, like the fact that Binoche is also an esteemed actress who captivated the world of cinema at an early age and is now reaching the stage of her career where a lot of people are probably asking her to play the “sad older woman” in movies. Indeed, Clouds of Sils Maria presents Maria as a shadow of her former self – an exceptional actress who has grown too jaded and closed-minded to really, truly be free and liberated enough to recapture her former greatness.
Meanwhile, there's an entirely different sort of fascination to seeing Kristen Stewart play Valentine, who is the sort of smart, persistent personal assistant that a star of Stewart's caliber almost certainly requires. One imagines a real-life version of Valentine buzzing around the set of Clouds of Sils Maria, setting requirements for Stewart's magazine photoshoots, turning down assorted interview requests and organizing a variety of script submissions. In one scene, Stewart scoffs at a script for a big-budget fantasy that “has werewolves in it for some reason,” but in another, she engages in a spirited debate with Maria on whether or not it's possible to deliver compelling, thought-provoking work within the confines of an expensive superhero movie (Maria scoffs at the notion of superpowers while Valentine makes a valiant case for the metaphorical power of the genre, and you're once again reminded of the kind of filmographies these two actresses have had).
Eventually, a third major player enters the film: Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz, Kick-Ass), a talented young star who has been offered the role of Sigrid in the new production of Maloja Snake. Here, there's yet another surprising connection, as Jo-Ann is pretty clearly modeled after Stewart... well, Stewart's public image, anyway. She's gifted, but outspoken to a fault and has a knack for stumbling into scandals from time to time (and she has another one waiting to happen, as she's having a secret affair with a married man). She professes to be awestruck by Maria's legendary talent, but it's difficult for Maria to see her as anything other than a meddlesome usurper (insert faint echoes of All About Eve here).
There are still more line-blurring complications, as elements from the play are subtly mirrored by elements from the “reality” of the film (which in turn are occasionally mirrored by elements of actual reality). This is the part where I'm supposed to declare that the film is a meditation on relationships between women or acting or fame or the relationship between life and art or something like that, but to be entirely honest, I'm not sure what the movie is getting at, exactly. I do know that it's consistently involving and thought-provoking, though, which is enough to start with.
Most of the movie plays out as a series of long, meandering dialogue scenes, but Assayas deliberately avoids making things feel like a stage play by effectively using vast outdoor locations in the Swiss Alps (yet another connection to the play, as Maria and Valentine are staying near the area that inspired the title of the play Maria is starring in). He stages a number of scenes in which the lush scenery almost seems to swallow the characters whole. He's very good at the sort of thing, but falters when attempting to stage his approximation of the shallower, more superficial world of entertainment: a clip of Jo-Ann's appearance on a talk show is backed by a weirdly phony laugh track, and an extended sequence from a fake superhero movie is frankly embarrassing.
All three of the central performances are commanding, and they grab you on different levels. Binoche is the star, placed at the center of almost everything in the movie and getting the most immediately compelling emotional arc. Moretz has the flashiest role, bursting onto the screen with reckless, youthful energy and stealing every scene she appears in. Still, it's Stewart's work that sticks with you the longest. There's a looseness in her performance that feels strikingly different for the actress (who has long been underrated – perhaps an inevitable consequence of being one of the stars of the Twilight franchise), and her work suggests an abundance of buried frustrations that always seem on the verge of bubbling to the surface but never quite make it there. On more than one occasion, she fades into the background of certain scenes, which is something personal assistants are supposed to be good at. Still, when she's absent, you wonder what she's thinking – a feeling that grows pronounced during the film's closing scenes. This is an interesting flick.
Clouds of Sils Maria
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 123 minutes
Release Year: 2015