One of a couple of celebrity lot-centered films shown in the Films de Cannes à Bucarest line-up, this two-hour drama written and directed by Olivier Assayas was, to my mind, head and shoulders above Cronenberg’s much-lauded Maps to the Stars and its lead, Juliette Binoche, could have easily nabbed the Best Actress prize ex-aequo with Stars’ Julianne Moore. As things stand, though, with just one Cannes nom, for the Palme d’Or, under its belt, the ultimately passed-over Clouds of Sils Maria might not make it on to everyone’s radar – but I hope this endorsement will secure it a place on yours!
The film revolves around famed middle-age actress Maria Enders (Binoche), who’s mourning the loss of Wilhelm, the playwright responsible for her breakout role 20 years back, in Maloja Snake – where she played the disarmingly surefooted flirt, Sigrid. An up-and-coming theater director, with a bit of help from Maria’s personal assistant Val (Kristen Stewart, surprisingly down-to-earth here), talks her into coming on board a revival of that same production that fast-tracked her career, only she’d be taking on the part of Sigrid’s foil, and ultimately victim of her wiles, Helena. The movie will chronicle Maria’s struggle with the text she’s now reading from a thoroughpaced star’s perspective, but also from that of an aging actress flashing back to the starting blocks she never quite let go of, as it now turns out.
Being aware of time going by is one thing, actually gauging the distance between then and now, is a tougher challenge altogether. And Binoche, as outwardly grande-dame-ish and secretly fragile as we’ve ever seen her, inhabits this split personality inherent to any actor with beguiling class. Her Maria clings to both her years of experience and her youthful disposition, as she alternates between adeptly negotiating the muddy waters of showbiz at cocktail parties and photo shoots, and looking down on the glitterati from high up in Sils Maria, the Alpine resort where she and Val run lines. It’s also here that Stewart really stands out – in a class by herself among tween icons gone straight, the opinionated firecracker who juggles all job-required hats and straddles all fences with youthful gusto is positively enthralling. She is a phone-wielding fixer more than she ever was a vampire-loving mouse.
Arguably the most riveting scenes of Assayas’ astute, wordy drama take place here, against the snaking cloud formations wafting in through the craggy Maloja strait. While what we learn of the fictional play bearing its name is sadly limited to the tug of war, and love, between company head Helena and Sigrid, her PA, the very fact that we glean it from the obvious parallel the writer-director draws to Maria and Val’s own co-dependent relationship, stands as the film’s telling, relishing centerpiece. As Maria’s prepping the part of Helena with Val as her sole sounding board, nestled away from the public eye in Wilhelm’s snug villa or hiking down the mountain trails, she’s also putting her no-nonsense companion through the hoops of her own insecurity. Is (her) acting still relevant in a starstruck world riveted with 3D intergalactic tent-poles?
That the scope of their relationship extends beyond the professional – with Val acting as both friend, trusted adviser and purveyor of juicy celeb news and gossip – doesn’t help matters much, seeing as the finicky actress is prone to dismissing Val’s input and begging for her approval, all in the same breath. “What do I need to do to make you admire me?” Maria asks, stripped of all grandstanding in the face of Val’s fascination with the new Sigrid on the block, actress du jour Jo-Ann Ellis (played, somewhat stiltedly, by Chloë Grace Moretz). Val, Maria’s own reluctant “Sigrid,” stands up for this young and infamously troubled Hollywood A-lister – though rubbing salt in an obvious wound, and though the troublemaker epitomizes modern-day enfant-terrible starlets, Val strives to cogently defend Jo-Ann’s questionable choice of film roles… a soapbox one can’t help but think Stewart would jump on for her own Twilmography.
Assayas’ deft maneuvering of this sort of loopy, recursive tropes into his script lends it a vehement force beyond the remit of the plot: Clouds of Sils Maria becomes a bevy of metaphors, encompassing every facet and stage of an actress’s life in the limelight. It’s a spot as ungrateful and assailable as we’d all more or less imagined and her awareness of it frustrates Binoche’s Maria, along with the indifferent timelessness of the artwork, whose shiny new Sigrid would ride roughshod over Maria’s own, and the shiftiness of the thespian art itself. The latter, unpredictable and seductive all at once, just like the clouds of Sils Maria winding their way through the impervious Alps. As the mirrors pile on, all but swallowing the fourth wall, we are left with a poignantly clear image of the Actress… bowing out.