It’s no new trick for a movie to get self-reflective and drop the viewer in a hall of mirrors. But few have pulled it off with the grace, style and smarts of Clouds of Sils Maria, a quiet drama about mortality, compromise and artistic creation set in the age of Google, celebrity scandal and blockbuster franchise noise.
The film is a feast for two superb actresses, one a longtime fixture, the other steadily rising. Juliette Binoche plays Maria Enders (a name fraught with meaning), a veteran of the stage and screen resisting the idea of returning to a play that made her name 20 years previous. Kristen Stewart plays Maria’s assistant Valentine, a sort of sounding board, confidante and human calendar all in one. Maria fears that the 21st-century world is passing her by. Valentine, feverishly handling business on her cellphone, doesn’t exactly disagree.
The play within the film is a jagged love story between two women, an older business titan and a younger protégée. But the filmmaker, Olivier Assayas, is far too imaginative and poetic to set up a forced schematic of life mimicking art. Instead he explores the spaces in between, telling a story about the pride of a woman who has had to scratch and crawl and stick to her principles and the savvy acolyte who doesn’t always feel appreciated.
Clouds of Sils Maria is an unabashed art film, in the classical sense of the term. Assayas is fully in touch with the open spaces and spiritual ennui of Michelangelo Antonioni; parts of Sils Maria carry echoes of both L’Avventura and Eclipse. As Maria and Valentine run lines in a remote Alps getaway, it’s hard not to think of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, or any number of the Swedish master’s films that play off the emotional intensity generated between women engaged in a battle of wills. For those who like their references more domestic, we get a touch of All About Eve from the impending collaboration between Maria and a hot mess of an actress played by Chloë Grace Moretz.
The key is that it all feels organic, not contrived, and also deceptively light on its feet. Binoche has a way of bursting into the most naturalistic and spontaneous laughter when Maria sees or hears something that defies her belief. One of the film’s best scenes finds Maria and Valentine debating the merits of an X-Men-like franchise movie starring Moretz’s character. The older woman doesn’t get it, and doesn’t really want to. But she’d love to remain relevant.
Stewart’s fine performance should surprise no one; she’s been a fiercely intelligent actress from the start, even if she’s still best-known for hitching her career to the Twilight franchise. (When Valentine rattles off an offer for Maria to do a Spanish horror film she adds a delicious detail: “There are werewolves involved, for whatever reason.”) There’s great pleasure to be had in both her affection and scorn.
Clouds of Sils Maria is fiendishly wise to the ways of show business, particularly the boxes in which it places women. But the film offers more than that. In tracing the interplay between art and life, it gives each room to play out on its own. Then it generously, quietly asks for our interpretation.
'Clouds of Sils Maria' (A-)
Directed by Olivier Assayas. Rated R (language, brief graphic nudity). In English, German, French and Swiss German with English subtitles. At the Magnolia and the Angelika Plano. 124 mins.