There’s an alluring alchemy to Olivier Assayas’ new work Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), a serpentine inquiry into the female interior masquerading as a film about cinema and the ephemeral nature of fame. Entangled in the dreamlike sensibilities of a filmmaker who delights in blurring the line between fiction and reality, it’s a complex, meta-fictionional drama that elicits a career defining performance from Kristen Stewart. Assayas’ latest focuses on the codependent relationship shared between ageing actress Maria (Juliette Binoche) and her personal assistant Valentine (Stewart). We first witness Valentine as she struggles with two mobile phones on a train winding through the Swiss Alps.
Valentine is trying to juggle Maria’s hectic schedule; her divorce proceedings, impending awards speech and the surfeit of brand endorsements she’s contractual obliged to participate in. Their trip is interrupted by news of the death of the director who gave Maria her big break as Sigrid in the play Maloja Snake, a coquettish teenager whose sexual advances drove her middle-aged boss Helena to suicide. At the funeral Maria is asked to perform in an adaptation of the play. However, this time Maria is to play Helena, whilst the role that made her a star is given to Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), a live-wire starlet whose self-destructive lifestyle has made her a constant fixture in the media.
Valentine helps Maria prepare for the role in Melchior’s Alpine cabin, but once the pair start rehearsals they begin to unearth the reality of their shared past, present and future. The “clouds” of the film’s title refer to a meteorological phenomenon that occurs along the Maloja Pass in the Swiss Alps, where the mist weaves through the mountain valley like a snake. It’s the inspiration for the name of the film’s fictional play; it’s also a powerful metaphor for the unyielding passage of time. Clouds of Sils Maria is at its most captivating when observing the discourse between Binoche and Stewart as the pair masterfully ricochet lines off one another in a volatile ballet of remarkable linguistic dexterity. As their relationship becomes more strained by the pressures of their work schedule, the true nature of Valentine’s role becomes apparent and the film morphs into an allegory for the porous divide between an actor’s personal space and their life in the spotlight.
As the film marches towards its third act the pair’s relationship begins mirroring the dynamics of the play and it becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate what is real and what is performance. The inclusion of Moretz’s character gives Binoche a chance to explore the contradiction of Maria’s narcissism and numerous insecurities, but it’s ultimately Stewart who shines the brightest. Her exasperated demeanour and subtle gestures of disapproval effortlessly disassemble the indomitable veneer of Binoche’s stoic, yet dwindling star. Clouds of Sils Maria isn’t merely a repository to dissect the trappings of fame, but a wider reaching study into culture that surrounds celebrity, with Maria’s life emblematic of a world besieged by an obsession with image. This beautifully understated exploration of the female interior employs abstract psychosexuality to disorientate the viewer just enough to force them to question the multi-layered narrative; culminating in a profound portrait of youth, maturity and the brief passage of time that divides them.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble