Meditations on art, mortality and performance are the lofty thematics explored in Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), a discursive drama from French director Olivier Assayas which features two exceptional performances from Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart. Binoche plays Maria Enders, an established and world famous actress who, twenty years prior, was made famous by her role in a play (and then film) as young seductress Sigrid, who destroys the life of her older lover, Helen. As the film opens, Maria is introduced to the audience on a train heading to Zurich to collect a prize on behalf of the writer of the play. She’s ably abetted by her American personal assistant, Val (former Twilight star Stewart).
Mary is in the midst of a divorce and is being pressured to accept roles she is not comfortable with, as well as juggling a busy schedule and suppressing the niggling doubt that she is not what she once was. The sudden death of the writer and a proposal by a daring young director doesn’t exactly provoke a crisis – Assayas keeps everything restrained and mellow – but causes her to meditate deeply on the nature of time and age versus youth. This is markedly acute as the director is proposing a revival of the original play but with Maria now playing Helen, the ageing victim was is destroyed by her desire for the manipulative Sigrid who will now be played by the Lindsay Lohan-like starlet Jo-Ann (Chloë Grace Moretz). Mary and Val use the writer’s abode to prepare for the role and to go through her scenes.
Conflicted and uncertain as to whether she even wants to do the role, Mary and Val’s relationship also begins to subtly changed as the young assistant begins to shed her devotion and professionalism and begins to feel increasingly dissatisfied with always being in at the behest to the older woman’s whims and her ideas being airily dismissed. Assayas has directed a subtle film with no big aspirations despite its star power. The theatricality of the piece is reminiscent of 1983’s The Dresser, but the tone eschews melodrama, preferring a calm, mature restraint. There are no hysterics, or screaming rows. A subtle frisson of eroticism charges Binoche and Stewart’s rapport, but again Assayas is discreet, fading to black and leaving it up to us to decide if anything actually happens in the interstices. Both actresses are excellent, with Binoche given more to do and she flips between attempting to get into the skin of her character and back to her normal self. Stewart, on the other hand, has an easy naturalism as she moves from devotion to rebellion without ever being able to fully express herself.
The two women have a natural humour and ease as they become friends, and perhaps more, but which makes their working relationship increasingly difficult. The theatricality is also offset by the wonderful landscape and the phenomena from which the film takes its title, as the clouds snake through the valley, driven by the morning wind. The slighting references to Hollywood – the pair even watch a fake sci-fi movie – do, however, begin to grate. The sound of straw superheroes being knocked to the ground can be heard. The division of the film into chapters also felt unnecessarily literary and a long and redundant epilogue could easily have been excised, and would in fact have added a star to this review if it had. As Robert Pattinson effectively proved in David Michôd’s The Rover (2014), Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria should go some way to rescuing his Twilight co-star from her teeny stardom and establish her as a serious actress in her own right. It was brave to pitch her against one of the greats in Binoche, but it’s a move that has ultimately paid off.
The full Glasgow Film Festival 2015 programme, ticketing details and more can be viewed at glasgowfilm.org.