Characters Offering Catharsis
There aren’t enough movies like Clouds of Sils Maria, movies that exist on a plane of beautiful self-awareness. This one stars Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart in powerfully meta-roles, giving performances they could only give at this moment in their careers. They’re directed by Olivier Assayas, who blends his actors with his characters, a resourceful if not fascinating overlap that slowly unpacks its rich themes of aging, celebrity and cultural perception.
It made a stop at last year’s New York Film Festival in tandem with David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, but it’s lost all of that movie’s cynicism. Instead of playing Julianne Moore’s sleazy, narcissistic, fading thespian, Binoche plays Maria, an actress confronting her fading identity almost spiritually. Along with her personal assistant Val (Stewart), she goes to Zurich to attend a posthumous retrospective of Wilhelm Melchior, the writer responsible for supplying her first break in a play called “Maloja Snake.” That was twenty years ago, playing Sigrid, a young assistant, who romantically entraps an older woman, Helena. During the press tour, a famous director offers her a role in his on-stage revival. This time she is to play Helena.
Sigrid is given to a young, scandalous starlet named Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz), whose latest project is a superhero sci-fi movie. This provides some thematic backdrop and a springboard for commentary. Maria and Val rehearse in Wilhelm’s old home in the Alps, constantly confusing themselves with the characters they’re reading. They go to see Jo-Ann’s movie and Val begins defending the popcorn fare Maria is quick to dismiss.
It’s really Assayas giving Stewart a platform to protect her Twilight movies, the teen attraction that garnered critical scoffs. “It’s daring. She goes deep, into a darker side,” says Val about Jo-Ann’s character. Stewart is guarding the sincerity she gave to her own archetype in Bella Swan. Ironically, this movie makes that role seem decades old. You see a particular wisdom emerging from Stewart during a time of redefinition: carrying a small film in Camp X-Ray and grounding the frustrating Still Alice. There’s nothing super anymore about her naturalness.
If this isn’t quite as transparent, Assayas adds another window of clarity. A simple Google search yields Jo-Ann’s scandals and poor public behavior. Later Jo-Ann becomes involved in an affair between an established husband and wife. If you know anything about Stewart’s history, it’s almost too blatant. “You never forget you’re watching these actresses,” Assayas said at the festival’s press conference. Binoche, Stewart, and Moretz merge into a kaleidoscope jumbled with their characters, mixed and matched, distorted yet focused.
Indeed Clouds of Sils Maria revels in its critiques and playful identities. But this movie aims higher than tongue-in-cheek humor. It’s subversive. Assayas directly confronts the American movies that rarely explore the ambiguities of their characters. Maria and Val exist in states of charming cohesion but explore their dissonance in age and perspective. Maria interprets Helena one way. Val interprets her another. You question whether they’re reading the script or speaking their own truths. All this takes place above the snake of clouds that rolls through their cavernous, breathtaking isolation. The tensions that boil — rehearsing lines, climbing mountains, dodging press — aren’t seen as melodramatic tragedies. They’re quibbles in the grandness of their environment.
You don’t see many writers let two – sometimes three — women just talk to each other. Their discussions aren’t about men or sex or superficiality. They’re focused on absorbing the characters they read, the lives they take away from them. Is Sigrid just a seductive, vapid bitch? Is Helena an expiring nostalgic losing her talent? Somewhere between the film’s two acts and epilogue, these questions stop becoming relevant for the real actors.
Assayas has created something true, and in effect timeless, ironically, for a movie so worried about those qualities. Near the end, Maria gets offered a movie role that lets her escape the shackles to which she has been existentially chained. “To excel and to know how to show it is to excel twice,” she quotes Baltasar Gracian to the director. She’s meditating on an inescapable contemporary culture while reconciling her past. Binoche is brilliant and she gets this movie’s brilliant last shot, right as the play begins. But by then, you’re already prepared to jump up and applaud.