Art constantly interacts with life in compelling, serendipitous ways. We go to museums, movies, and concerts in hopes that we will see pieces of our own experiences reflected back at us. Olivier Assayas’s newest film, Clouds of Sils Maria, places this phenomenon at the forefront. With a stacked cast—Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloe Grace Moretz--it should easily be a knock out. Binoche plays aging actress Maria Enders who is asked to perform in a revival of a play that kick-started her career twenty years earlier. At 18 she played Sigrid, a sultry young intern who seduces her boss Helena and drives her to insanity. She returns to play the older woman, but rehearsing the role only stirs up insecurities and anger, especially when the young actress now playing Sigrid (Moretz) is a raucous Internet sensation. Accompanied by her assistant Valentine (Stewart), Maria seeks recluse in Sils Maria, a remote mountain town in the Alps, where they rehearse her scenes together.
Director: Olivier Assayas
Producer: Charles Gillibert
Writer: Olivier Assayas
Cinematographer: Yorick Le Saux
Editor: Marion Monnier
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloe Grace Moretz, Lars Eidinger, Johnny Flynn, Angela Winkler
Country: France/Germany/ Switzerland/USA/Belgum
Premiere: May 23, 2014 - Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: April 10, 2015
US Distributor: Sundance Selects
French director Olivier Assayas presents some interesting themes: aging gracefully in a digital era, the ability of theater to speak to truth, and the permeability of fiction. He has expertly selected his cast so that their own personal lives inform and blend with their characters. In real life Binoche is the seasoned actress, working from a place where some of her greatest performances are behind her. Binoche and Assayas even conceived of the story together. Stewart too shares compelling similarities with her character. Her own romantic relationship with her former personal assistant has provided fodder for the tabloids (though they still refuse to use the right word).
Moretz too is not immune to representation of her personal life on screen. Clouds of Sils Maria’s digs at Jo-Ann (Moretz’s character) seem to be a self-deprecating joke about her rise to fame as the star of Kick Ass. Thus Assayas presents a triple meta narrative: the roles in the play reflect the trajectories of the actors within the film which in turn reference the lives of the actors in the living, breathing world outside of the diegesis. Despite the potential in this construction, Assayas executes his film with a heavy hand. Yes, art often reflects reality but that simple observation is not enough to create a thought-provoking film. Assayas could have gone farther and pushed the parallels in more complex ways to better challenge the idea that there is a distinct line where the self ends and art begins.
Many of the problems of Clouds of Sils Maria lie in the tone. Assayas’s film is dialogue heavy as his characters muse over the possibilities of art to inform life. But their conversations frequently feel stuffy, pretentious, and overdone, especially as the film is set in old world Switzerland where aging white male actors give impassioned speeches about recently deceased white male playwrights and white male directors explain to white female actors the intricacies of theater. All of this is set to a soundtrack featuring music by Handel and other classical greats. It is hard to take such a self-indulgent environment seriously when you are rolling your eyes most of the time.
Sils Maria also presents some far too obvious metaphors, namely the Maloja snake, a rare cloud formation that occurs in the Swiss Alps and resembles a snake sliding through the landscape. As Maria and Valentine dive deeper into the play (it is called “The Maloja Snake,” subtle) and their own relationship grows to resemble that of the characters, they become preoccupied with seeing the snake. At times it seems that their relationship depends on it. When they journey to the top of the mountain at sunrise, Valentine—spoiler alert—mysteriously disappears, just as Helena does in the play. As the plot continues, the parallels between play, film, and life begin to become painfully predictable (e.g. the film is called Clouds of Sils Maria).
But while certain elements of the film feel over the top, other parts feel underdeveloped. For example, Assayas seems to suggest an unspoken disconnect between American and European conceptions of accessible art but never develops it into a clear argument. Both Valentine and Jo-Ann are Americans and supporters of a new digital era where youth, innocence, and failure are just as interesting as the refinement that comes with experience. At one point in the film Valentine and Maria see Jo-Ann’s newest superhero movie in a small theater outside of Sils Maria. Maria finds the entire premise of the futuristic narrative ridiculous and laughable but Valentine argues for the profundity of good acting and relatable storytelling no matter the context (perhaps a reference to Stewart’s own role with the Twilight series, a role she vehemently defends). But Clouds of Sils Maria allows these conversations to trail off rather than leave a pointed question mark. It seems purposeful that Assayas’s film offers a contrast of opinions: Valentine is young, American, and interested in newness. Maria is more traditionally European, preoccupied with “high brow art” and authenticity. But the question of a nationality difference between Maria and Valentine goes unacknowledged. It seems unusual that the French actress Maria would employ an American personal assistant who can’t even speak her language. Assayas should have flushed out this disconnect more, both providing a narrative explanation as well as better showcasing how this difference informs their relationship. Clouds of Sils Maria presents a compelling conflict, but fails to take it anywhere.
Though the film frequently thinks too highly of its own metaphor, it is still a film about women, sexuality, and art, topics all too rare in mainstream cinema. Helena and Sigrid’s lesbian relationship in the play is never scandalized and Assayas presents the affection between Maria and Valentine with tenderness. While the male characters are basically insufferable, there are only three of them and they play pretty minimal roles. Clouds of Sils Maria is first and foremost a film about women, representation, and art’s capacity to be, in Valentine’s words, “truer than truth itself.”
So while Sils Maria never succeeds to achieve the profundities that it strives toward, it does present a compelling argument for the erasure of truth and fiction. More interesting than the final product is the greater phenomenon of actors teasing out their own truths on screen. The actors exhibit incredible vulnerability, allowing audiences to view and critique alternate versions of their own careers and personal lives. The initial inspiration for Clouds of Sils Maria is thought provoking, but Assayas never follows through with a clear thesis, leaving his viewers underwhelmed by painfully evident parallels.