Clouds of Sils Maria: Assayas’ Anatomy of Actress Life, Starring Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart

clouds_of_sils_maria_poster“Clouds of Sils Maria,” the second teaming of the bright French director Olivier Assayas and the fantastically versatile Juliette Binoche, is a fascinating, multi-layered film that needs to be seen more than once in order to absorb its richly nuanced text and ambiguous subtext.

World premiering at the Cannes Film Fest (In Competition), “Clouds of Sils Maria” also played at the Toronto and New York Film Fests.

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Assayas co-wrote Binoche’s first starring role, in Andre Techine’s romantic drama, “Rendez-Vous” (1985), which also played at the Cannes Film Fest.  Reportedly, the actress, who played a supporting part in his ensemble film “Summer Hours,” has asked the director to write a rich part about a “genuine female phenomenon.”



clouds_of_sils_maria_5_binoche_stewartAssayas has met the challenge with his new feature, which offers not one but three good parts for women; the other two are played by American actresses Kristen Stewart and Chloe Grace Moretz. Female-driven, “Clouds of Sils Maria” is a meta-narrative about being a middle-aged actress, the insecurities and fragile ego of all actresses, and the need to be constantly loved and reassured by colleagues and friends.

It is not that Assayas has neglected women in his work. He has made a wonderful fable, Irma Vemp, with his then wife, the Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung, and again in a movie, Clean, he wrote for her.  He has also cast Chloe Sevigny in “Demonlover” and Asia Argento in “Boarding Gate.”

The latest film’s point of the reference is Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s classic Oscar winner, All About Eve, which boasts the greatest performance Bette Davis has ever given (and her resume contains at least a dozen such roles). Like “All About Eve,” but unlike Almodovar’s masterpiece, “All About My Mother” (which also owes its existence to the 1950 Hollywood picture), “Clouds of Sils Maria” reflects a decidedly heterosexual sensibility; both Mankiewicz and Assayas are straight men who love women, and the former was one of Hollywood’s most sought after lovers (claiming among his affairs Joan Crawford and Judy Garland).

clouds_of_sils_maria_3_binocheBinoche (who’s 50 year old) plays Maria Enders, a middle-aged movie star who’s approached about remaking “Maloja Snake,” the film that launched her career two decades earlier. This time, however, she’s allotted the older role — a burnt-out, middle-aged businesswoman manipulated by her young female assistant in what may or may not be a lesbian bond.

Reflecting her professional insecurities regarding age, and subjective experience, Maria still identifies strongly with the character she had played at age 20, whereas the part of the has-been is haunted by her previous co-star, who committed suicide a year after making that movie. Needless to say, Marie feels deeply threatened trading places with the hot and cool newcomer, even is she tries to conceal it.

clouds_of_sils_maria_2_binoche_stewartWhat ensues is a riveting tale, which is at once film noir, a surreal ghost story, and above all a satirical anatomy of the instability of movie stardom and how it affects not only the star but also all those around her.

The first scene, set on a moving train, is nothing short of brilliant, and it also set the ominous tension that prevails throughout the film. Maria is traveling with her assistant Val (Stewart) to accept an award on behalf of her close friend and mentor, playwright Wilhelm Melchior (loosely inspired by Rainer Werner Fassbinder). While dealing with her divorce, Marie receives word that Melchior has died, bring back a figure from her past, an old co-star named Henryk Wald (Hanns Zischler) whose own desperation is a warning signal for Marie’s uncertain future.

clouds_of_sils_maria_4_stewartIn the first hour the focus is one the co-dependent relationship between Marie and Val, who serves as the star’s assistant, surrogate mother, de facto therapist, rehearsal partner—perhaps even more. Using (or abusing) her power, Val convinces Marie to do a revival of “Maloja Snake” revival, and to meet Jo-Ann Ellis, the edgy young actress (Moretz) cast in the other crucial part.

The play that they rehearse both parallels and reflects the two women’s emotionally and sexually charged bond.  Assayas has not acknowledged the influence of Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 masterpiece, “Persona,” which delved deeply into the issue of crisis and identity transference between two women.

Occasionally, Val leaves the hotel to visit a male photographer (boyfriend?) and just take walks by herself in the mountainous region. Then, in what is deliberately an abrupt transition, Val disappears without any explanation or overt reason; we are again left to speculate about her motivations.

clouds_of_sils_maria_1What adds to the film’s complexity is the differing acting style of the two women. Binoche (who won a Supporting Actress Oscar in 1996 for “The English Patient”) has excelled before in various roles and languages, but we have never seen Stewart playing (and looking) so compellingly in what is a demanding, decidedly not romantic or pleasant, part.

Assayas shows scenes from a 1924 silent movie by German director Arnold Fanck, which are well integrated into his own narrative.

Most of the tale takes place high in the Swiss Alps, above the clouds, where Maria and Val can see the real “Maloja Snake,” a meteorological formation of serpent-like clouds above a valley divided by mountains on either side. The striking images (in widescreen), courtesy of cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, often support and at other times contrast with Assayas’ witty and satirical words.

The movie is playful without being silly, self-reflexive without being too self-conscious.  You could argue that only a genuine cineaste well versed in film history–Assayas was a film critic before he became a director–could have made “Clouds of Sils Maria.”