Olivier Assayas has long been fascinated by history, whether his own (Something in the Air), that of his country (Les Destinées sentimentales) and continent (Carlos) or, indeed, his own profession (Irma Vep). His latest, Clouds of Sils Maria, was apparently conceived as a challenge by Juliette Binoche, star of Assayas’s heritage drama Summer Hours, to write a female history; his response has been to create the role of Maria Enders, an actress – played by Binoche herself – who arrives on screen trailing all manner of tales. It’s a quietly radical proposition: here’s a woman who’s really lived.
The reflective-retrospective tone is set from the opening moments. We find Maria and her PA Valentine (Kristen Stewart) on a train passing through Switzerland, where Maria is heading to present a lifetime achievement gong to the playwright who created her breakthrough role twenty years earlier – a plan derailed when the writer passes hours before the ceremony, leaving Maria and Valentine holed up in his Alpine retreat, and pondering where to go from here.
One project Maria’s been mulling is an update of the writer’s best-known play, “Maloja Snake”, about the intense, sexually charged relationship between two women, one in her forties, the other in her twenties: where once she played the juvenile lead, now she will assume the senior position. When Maria asks Valentine to assist her with her lines, art and life start to meld. Given that Binoche is swapping insults with the much-maligned star of the Twilight franchise, here acting 10% more butch than usual, it’s hard to know where the play stops and interpersonal psychodrama begins.
Assayas is trying to demonstrate how art and life come to mediate, even regulate one another, and in places, the film assumes a faintly academic air. Sils Maria can be a little too fond of its own on-the-nose dialogue, and though it’s wise to the ways the Internet has radically altered how we interpret the world, its presence is interwoven in the slightly clumsy manner of an elder statesman taking his first jabs at an iPad.
We’re never far from the arthouse centreground, certainly: the film is largely made up of well-heeled people sitting around well-appointed hotel suites and restaurants talking. As in Birdman, that dialogue picks over the myth of the actor as one who simply performs better than the rest of us lowly mortals. Yet Assayas never takes sides, and these ideas are far better digested here than they were in its garbled American predecessor: it’s a deluxe, leisurely three-course affair, easily surpassing the Iñárritu film’s rushed Whopper meal.
The budgetary level Assayas is now working at affords him newly elegant means of framing his inquiries; he uses the mountain air and Alpine passes to open out and freshen up what could have been a claustrophobic chamber piece along Persona lines. During their daily hikes, Maria and Valentine come to follow in the footsteps of the perambulating playwright: they try to figure out where he was coming from, and what he was getting at, and so tease out new perspectives on the same material.
Along their path, Assayas hits upon some lovely visual representations of history – train tracks, snaking mountain roads, the titular cloud phenomenon – but he’s just as engaged with his performers' history. Binoche, coming off the back of Godzilla, lands not just the most substantial role of her recent career, but one of the most encompassing: though Maria suffers her fair share of actressy agonies, Assayas equally allows his leading lady to deploy that extraordinary, oft-suppressed, Garbo-like laugh of hers. (Joy of the week/month/year: Binoche’s derisory pronouncing of the word “superpowers”.)
The revelation to most here, however, will surely be Stewart, who (lest we forget) went heart-to-heart with the Oscar-winning Julianne Moore in Still Alice, and does a similar thing here: less demonstrative than her co-star, she’s still awesomely precise, on-point, present – to the extent that we, like Maria, have cause to miss her whenever she skulks away. In her scenes with Binoche, you sense a torch, or at the very least a lit cigarette, being passed from one intensely independent spirit to another; that French César win back in February, much as it may have surprised some, was entirely merited.
(MovieMail, May 2015)
Clouds of Sils Maria screens on BBC2 tonight at 11.55pm.