Filmmaker Olivier Assayas’s latest work, “Clouds of Sils Maria,” is provocative, evocative, and many layered. On the surface it deals with international theater star Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), who has been asked to perform in a revival of a play that brought her fame years ago.
Now, however, she is asked to play the older Helena, while an up-and-coming Hollywood starlet will play Sigrid, the alluring young woman whom Maria had originally portrayed. Her wrestling with the decision discloses inner conflicts about her earlier life, her present life, and her future.
Bringing painful memories is her forced meeting with a former lover, the “great” actor Henryk Wald (Hanns Zischler). The two are to speak at a memorial service dedicated to a noted playwright, recently deceased, who had been Maria’s mentor. Maria still resents that Henryk took advantage of her when she was only 18, and now gleefully rebuffs his current advances.
Everything Maria does and thinks is exposed to her intimate assistant Valentine (played with sensitivity and panache by Kristen Stewart). Almost like Maria’s second skin, Valentine understands the older woman completely, guiding her in virtually every decision.
Valentine engineers a meeting between Maria and the young, gifted director Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), who is determined to sway Maria to take the role of Helena. Elements of the actor’s skill are discussed, the soul-searching, the philosophical analysis of the script, and inquiries into an actor’s approach to a role, elements that urge him or her to accept or reject a particular role. An inside look into a serious actor’s craft.
Although Klaus is very persuasive, Maria remains uncommitted. Fighting to maintain her dignity, her self-importance, she is reluctant to play second fiddle to an unseasoned starlet.
However, when she later meets starlet Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), Maria is favorably impressed. Valentine cynically points out that Jo-Ann and her friend Christopher (Johnny Flynn) had flattered Maria during the entire talk.
Nature soon plays a role in the drama: Here, in the actual Swiss village of Sils Maria, an almost unearthly phenomenon, the “snake” of Maloja, sometimes appears. An enormous cloud mysteriously winds through the mountains, skimming the stream below.
When Maria and Valentine take a hike in the mountains, Maria is the first to encounter the cloudy “snake.” But when she turns to share her excitement with Valentine, the latter, who had shown restlessness, has vanished. She is never mentioned again.
Maria, finally accepting the role, meets harsh reality head on. One evening, between scenes, Maria requests a minor concession in the blocking from Jo-Ann, to highlight Maria/Helena’s importance. The formerly conciliatory Jo-Ann now gives a cool, rejecting reply. In a poignant moment, the hurt Maria can only buckle under to Youth, who has replaced her.
The film’s layers disclose the battle between young and older, the need to accept one’s place, or not, the role of loyalty in one’s relationships, the hidden terrors of growing old.
Performances are uniformly excellent, but the three women particularly shine. The feminine Binoche often exhibits a mannish quality, perhaps representing Maria’s need to maintain control, alternating strength and vulnerability.
Kristen Stewart displays a quicksilver skill in both pleasing and manipulating her employer, often simultaneously. And the camera loves Chloë Grace Moretz, whose large-featured, photogenic face, both intense and pretty, adds another element to her fine performance.
Lars Eidinger and Hanns Zischler, mentioned earlier, give powerful support to this very worthwhile and intriguing effort by filmmaker Olivier Assayas.
‘Clouds of Sils Maria’
Director: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz
Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes
Release date: April 10
5 stars out of 5
Diana Barth publishes New Millennium, an arts publication. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org