The meaning of life, cinema and everything, Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria is a powerful, thought-provoking two-hander of subtle performance from Stewart and Binoche.
Something In The Airby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Sometimes it’s all about the casting. For not only is Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria a brilliant two-hander played out between Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart, it also alludes knowingly to their past careers and personal stories. Kristen Stewart finds a proxy in Jo-Ann Ellis, a Hollywood superstar catapulted into fame by a series of high-concept sci-fi studio flicks, but keen to make a name for herself as a serious artiste in the European tradition. And indeed, Stewart has never been finer. Then there’s Maria Enders – a powerful, experienced European actress of the stage and screen, but no stranger to Hollywood either – plucked from obscurity way back when and turned into a star by the great director William Melchior, and plagued with all manner of requests to open Chinese shopping malls, endorse all sorts of products and propel would-be directors into fame and glory. Like her equally enigmatic performance in Still Alice, Kristen Stewart might be all mumblecore, but it’s a battle between Hollywood and European cinematic traditions, where star power meets stellar performance.
Grande dame of the stage and screen, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is travelling by train to Zurich with her personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) to accept an award in honour of Wilhelm Melchior, the director who turned her into a star. She’s plunged into an emotional turbulence of doubt, grief and jealousy when he suddenly dies and she comes face to face with her long despised leading-man nemesis. But after some persuasion, Maria agrees to take part in bright young thing director Klaus’ (Lars Eidinger) new theatre production of Maloja Snake, a revisioning of the play that made her name – only this time instead of playing young and nubile Sigrid, she’s taking on the role of older woman Helena, the matriarchal industrialist with an overwhelming lesbian passion. Months later, Maria returns to Sils Maria with Valentine, camping out in Wilhelm Melchior’s old house to rehearse and trek through the Alps to catch a glimpse of the Maloja Snake – a meteorological phenomenon which sees cloud pour through the valleys like water. She meets her opposite lady, enfant terrible and Holywood superstar Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz) becoming unintentionally involved in Ellis’ tabloid dramas as stage rehearsals in London grow closer.
France’s answer to the UK’s genre-busting Michael Winterbottom, Olivier Assayas returns after his nostalgic autobiography Something In The Air with an intelligent and philosophical rumination on ageing and its effect on our relationship with art. And while Assayas’ film gleefully takes place all over Europe, here Assayas’ Weltanschauung is anchored firmly within the German tradition – his fictional play Maloja Snake riffing on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant. And it’s a mise-en–abyme that finds echoes in the world of Maria Enders and her personal assistant Valentine, which – while refusing to draw any explicit parallels with a sexual attraction between the two women – revisits the relationship as a danse macabre – two lives intricately intertwined, their dependency on each other undermined by the divisive drive of power. For the most part, it’s an honest, open relationship – where Valentine takes care of the day-to-day, purging hotel rooms of unwanted fruit baskets, but is also able to speak her mind – offering without inhibition her opinions on the world, the internet, Maria’s acting and the role of Helena.
High up in the Swiss Alps, fiction and reality become intertwined. And indeed Assayas sometimes cuts to a scene which appears to be between Maria and her assistant, before making it apparent that the two women are simply rehearsing – their own situation not too different from that of their spoken parts. Only, it’s almost as if their roles are reversed – Maria’s power and celebrity shining like Sigrid’s youthful beauty. And it’s Valentine here that disappears, no longer able to take the imbalance of paid intimacy. But as Assayas plays with layers of character and personality through reflections of fiction and reality, there’s a rich seam that runs through Clouds Of Sils Maria – that Sigrid and Helena are in fact the same person, one woman separated by forty years of experience. And it’s a perspective Maria Enders struggles to uphold, unable to abandon her youthful, powerful character in favour of something more vulnerable.
There’s great beauty to Olivier Assayas’ Clouds Of Sils Maria, with the simplicity of its two-hander between Binoche and Stewart and its evocative images of alpine valleys steeped in cloud. And while the metaphor of the Maloja Snake – as an awesome force of nature, something akin to love, death or the passage of time – remains elusive, Assayas’ film acquires an unexpected roundness, sewing together its strands of celebrity, internet, the nature of art, cinema and ageing into a comprehensive whole. It’s a unique cosmos where satire, philosophy and literary analysis are somehow combined into a mysterious phenomenon of Assayas’ own making. And while the depths of Clouds Of Sils Maria cannot perhaps be entirely fathomed, like a wispy serpent of cloud, it’s nevertheless an awe-inspiring charge.
Clouds of Sils Maria is released on 15th May 2015 in the UK