We have films that we admire. Upon returning to them, we lose sight of that admiration. Did the film betray us? Of course not, despite what we may tell ourselves. It’s us who have changed. I know that I certainly don’t hold films of my youth in the same high regard that I once did, at least not since entering adulthood. Our collective experiences and non-experiences shape the way we interpret any given text. So fundamentally, age plays an integral part in that. Time goes by and we (hopefully) process a series of new experiences that (again, hopefully) broaden our worldview and make us just a little more enlightened. Because if not, what’s the point?
That’s a jumping off point to consider when viewing Oliver Assayas’ gorgeous, wispy, and gloriously strange Clouds of Sils Maria. It is a film about three women in different stages of their life who, among their musings and social lobbying, must interpret a text for the stage. But what Assayas succeeds in conveying is not entirely dissimilar to what Abbas Kiarostami accomplishes in Certified Copy. This is to say, Clouds of Sils Maria is layered in meaning and interpretation that treats it material as an object that changes shape depending on where you are standing.
The film opens on Valentine (Kristen Stewart). She juggles between phones as she’s composing an itinerary for her boss, the actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche). The two on headed for Sils Maria for a scheduled tribute of one of Enders’ oldest friends - the playwright and director Wilhelm Melchoir. The rocky train ride culminates in the news that Melchoir has passed away, reshaping his upcoming tribute as a memorial.
The loss of such a close personal and professional friend shakes Valentine. While she is at the height of her international profile she understands that her age may now preclude her from taking on younger roles. It’s a difficult situation for the woman, with Valentine doing her best to mitigate the strain through her own brand of comic sordidness. Valentine arranges a meeting between Maria and a wunderkind director who hopes to resurrect the project that made Maria an international sensation in the first place. But whereas Maria played the role of Sigrid, a young vixen who drives her boss Helena to suicide, twenty years ago, she is now asked to take on the role of Helena. She accepts the offer, reluctantly.
What follows is a delightfully bizarre interplay between Valentine and Maria, where the two lodge in a cabin near the Alps to go over lines of dialogue. It’s a marvel of sound and production design as the two rehearse and discuss the motives of the play’s characters. Maria holds onto an image of the Helena character that she held onto from when she did the production initially, feeling the character to be weak-willed and grows increasingly frustrated with herself for accepting the role. Meanwhile, Valentine attempts to validate the character through her own lens. A wedge between them develops as Maria dismisses Valentine’s interpretations.
Helena and Sigrid are Maria and Valentine proxies, with their rehearsals echoing their inner feelings toward each other. The introduction of Jo-Anne Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz) complicates their relationship, with Valentine being more receptive toward Ellis’ tawdry lifestyle (she’s essentially a Lindsay Lohan-type celebrity). The complexities of all three women enter a meta-stratosphere that’s about the equivalent of a Russian doll. Consider all the baggage and pedigree that all three actresses (Binoche, Stewart, and Moretz) bring, with their careers all at legitimate crossroads. Then consider the interplay between women as they take on roles that essentially tackle these stages in their career. There’s an unprecedented density to this picture that at times escapes you as you marvel at the linguistic aerobics and formal genius on display.
I’m often critical of overtly stagey material as it presents obstacles in developing a textured mise-en-scène. This is a problem that Assayas avoids through the swiftness of his camera and editing technique. He often deploys fades to black as a means of creating a vignette structure, shifting locales from the high energy of a moving train to a hotel corridor to the mountains. Each scene is a set piece in itself and a gorgeously realized one at that. Additionally, when Assayas is working within a confined area, particularly in scenes where Binoche and Stewart are rehearsing lines, he moves the camera in an elegant motion that matches the tension between actors. When Binoche boils over in histrionics, Assayas moves in a similarly bombastic manner. It’s the ultimate example of actor and director working in complete harmony.
The persistent theme of Clouds of Sils Maria, or one of its many prevailing aspects, is the manner in which we approach and digest a text. The discussions that hold court in the film are about how age changes perspective and how our failure to acknowledge that only narrows our worldview. Like John Cassavetes’ Opening Night, this is a film that is overtly about acting and seeking catharsis, but more broadly, it is a film about life and that never ending search for meaning. We must be prepared to uncover truths about ourselves that we may not like. At one point or another, we uncover our own frailty and must come to grips with it. If we can’t accept that, then perhaps truth was never within reach in the first place.