Clouds of Sils Maria, if nothing else, is a superb acting showcase for one actress long regarded as brilliant and one long dismissed as a lightweight, but who is reinventing herself as an accomplished performer. It provides less and more problematic material for a third actress who has done consistently solid work, but whose treatment by Hollywood is decidedly troubling.
What it doesn’t provide, beyond individual scenes that compel, is a real point or a thesis that doesn’t feel like All About Eve mixed with faint, coincidental hints of Birdman, while falling prey to one of my greatest pet peeves in fiction. But let’s start from the beginning.
Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is a renowned actress traveling to Zurich to accept an award on behalf of Wilhelm Melchior, her mentor who made her a star decades earlier in his play (and then film) Maloja Snake. Maria’s assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) receives a call that Wilhelm has suddenly died, changing the event into a memorial. Meanwhile, stage director Klaus (Lars Eidinger) courts Maria to appear in a revival of Maloja Snake, only instead of playing the young woman she played decades earlier, she will play the older woman she seduces.
Maria reluctantly accepts the role, and with Valentine’s help she prepares for the role at Wilhelm’s home at Sils Maria in the Alps. She and Valentine argue over their interpretation of the characters; Maria still identifies with the young protagonist, seeing her as a free spirit, and considers the older character dull and poorly written. Valentine argues that the older woman is in fact the most sympathetic character and the young woman is selfish and manipulative.
It is revealed that the young woman will be played by Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), a Hollywood star (worshipped by Valentine) whose greatest success has come in a sci-fi blockbuster, and whose turbulent private life threatens to overshadow her talent. Maria is reluctant at first, but when she meets Jo-Ann, she is charmed by her good nature and flattered when Jo-Ann admits that seeing Maria on stage motivated her to follow her dream of acting.
Tensions between Maria and Valentine continue, however, and Valentine abruptly disappears one day while they are hiking in the mountains. Later, as the production in London looms, scandal strikes again when the wife of Jo-Ann’s current boyfriend attempts suicide. This passes, however, and things move ahead without issue–but when Jo-Ann thoughtlessly rebuffs Maria’s suggestion on how to play a particular beat, the sense of triumph is muted.
The film ends as the play opens, after Maria has rejected a film offer from a young director who claims not to identify with his generation.
The acting is what makes Clouds. Binoche is not really asked to reinvent the wheel or herself here–the role was apparently based to some degree on her–but she has the bearing of a star (yes, she is one, but she does not make it meta-phony), and as clunky as some of Maria’s reactions to the state of modern entertainment are, she plays them as sincerely as humanly possible. That life begins to imitate art is a fairly stale theme, but Binoche is emotionally convincing at all times in showing how Maria’s sense of self is being challenged; even the most emotionally charged moments avoid histrionics. It may not be her greatest performance–the role is just not that freshly conceived–but she does not let down her side.
Stewart may be the real revelation here, and indeed, she became the first American actress to win a César (the French Oscar). What struck me about her performance from the first was how natural it was. If her low-key manner went too far towards flatness in the Twilight films, here it perfectly suits the nature of a personal assistant: a bit harried, a bit self-effacing, seeking to be helpful, but willing to give a counter view if the occasion demands it. Even when the writing for Valentine falters (her defense of Jo-Ann’s “genuine” nature is fairly ham-fisted) she never betrays Valentine’s essential nature, and while some may view Valentine’s disappearance as a great enigma, it’s pretty clear to me (and those I saw it with) she grew tired of arguing with Maria.
One friend also suggested that she was acting in Maria’s best interest as well, pushing her to go ahead with the role and not waste time debating the meaning of the play. (In another, rather facile link between art and life, the older woman in Maloja Snake vanishes without explanation near the end of the play.) Stewart’s performance is strong enough and fluid enough to support either view. (For a moment I assumed Maria had murdered Valentine, because that would be just clichéd enough, but nothing else in the film supports it.)
Moretz has less to do–she doesn’t actually enter the film, outside of interview and film clips, until the last act–and the script fails to reconcile the dissipated wild child we first see with the good-natured Jo-Anne we eventually meet, but Moretz plays both sides of the character well, and her final exchange with Maria is convincingly thoughtless. The scene from her blockbuster (some kind of science-fiction YA adaptation) is horribly unconvincing, not least because of the cheap sets and CGI, but otherwise Moretz gives a solid performance.
The script, by director Olivier Assayas, is a radically mixed bag; when the film focuses on the characters, particularly on Maria’s artistic angst and Valentine’s efforts to help her, it’s generally effective, even if the Maria-Jo-Anne dynamic is fairly derivative of All About Eve (and again, the whole life-imitating art element is superficially clever, but ultimately doesn’t resonate).
But when the film deals with the play-within-a-film (or worse, the film that Jo-Anne starred in), it all but falls apart. I’ve noticed that films about fictional films, or plays about fictional plays, or books about fictional books, or any combination thereof, usually ring utterly false. Birdman made the right choice by having Riggan’s play adapt Raymond Carver’s stories, just like 8 1/2 made the right choice by being about a film that didn’t exist, even in its director’s head.
But take the musical Merrily We Roll Along, which claims that a musical called Musical Husbands would be a success in the 60s (at best, the 30s), or that a political show called Take a Left would fly in such an era (Waiting for Lefty was likewise far earlier), or would be a passion project for its creators. Or Bowfinger, in which Chubby Rain feels like a bad joke, rather than a script that even a desperate producer would seize upon (at least that was a farce). Or really any time a fake title, or poster, or scene must be invented–time and again, it baffles me that people whose job it is to create fiction stumble when tasked to create fictional fiction. There are exceptions, of course, but it’s a trope which generally irks me.
Clouds has not one but two examples of this offense. Maloja Snake is not described in great detail, but it deals with a manipulative romance between a younger and an older woman–in other words, it sounds like the kind of softcore crap that might have gone over in the 60s, but the idea that such a play would have found notable success in the 80s, let alone made a star of Maria, is pretty damn hard to swallow. The snippets of the play we hear don’t sound especially notable either, so the idea that this play would be getting a large-scale revival is either a bitter commentary on the modern theater or a failure of the writing.
And Jo-Anne’s weird sci-fi epic (which seems to be a riff on The Hunger Games, but in space) is laughably unreal; I’m not sure if Valentine’s defense of the film and Jo-Anne’s performance is meant to be comical, but the ridiculously shitty quality of the faux film suggests Assayas was either trying for a weak parody of blockbuster cinema or really doesn’t get how such films work. Either way, it’s pretty bad.
His direction is solid overall, but the constant fadeouts and vaguely arbitrary divisions of the narrative grow distracting. At over two hours, the film tends to wander, and the subplot with Jo-Anne’s scandal feels awfully superfluous. The ambiguities in the narrative are moderately interesting, but not taken far enough to really be thought-provoking. There is one odd scene where Valentine leaves on an overnight trip to see a young man she’s tentatively involved with, before pulling over to the side of the road and vomiting, presumably cutting the trip short. I thought the scene might be hinting at some secret malice on Maria’s part, but nothing comes of it.
Nothing comes of much in this film, though. It’s not a bad watch by any means, and the strength of the acting gets it this high, but I doubt I’d ever return to it. It just doesn’t say very much we haven’t heard before.