[Warning: there are one or two plot spoilers in the following review.]
You’re probably aware by now that Kristen Stewart became the first American actress to win a César Award for her performance in Clouds Of Sils Maria, the latest film by French auteur Olivier Assayas, though she is in fact the second of her country’s talents to have done so (Adrien Brody got there first ten years ago). Stewart was very good earlier this year in Still Alice too, acquitting herself well opposite one of the best actresses working today (on Oscar-winning form to boot). So for anyone following her career closely it’ll come as no surprise if I concur that yes, she does deliver her finest performance to date as Valentine, PA to Juliette Binoche’s actress Maria Enders, and that she is just as impressive as the consistently-great Parisian – last seen, rather unusually, in a brief cameo at the beginning of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla – in this poetic tale of identity and temporality. It’s also interesting to note the way in which the majority of reviews of Clouds Of Sils Maria – admittedly including this one – have focused on the performance of the younger actress over that of the older, established great, which echoes one of the film’s key themes.
We first glimpse the pair in a blur of smartphone use on a train rattling through the Swiss Alps towards Zurich. Maria is due to attend a ceremony in honour of Wilhelm Melchior, the Swiss playwright and director who launched her stage and screen career twenty five years earlier, but word reaches the pair that he has died on the eve of the gala. It transpires that Melchior cast the younger Maria in his play Maloja Snake, the title referencing a Swiss cloud phenomenon, which focuses on the overlapping working and sexual relationship between a young intern and her boss. A well-respected theatre director named Klaus (Lars Eidinger) approaches Maria and explains that he is planning a new stage version of the play in London, and that he wants her to appear in it again, only this time as the older woman. Maria agrees, but her initial hesitation and reluctancy seems entirely sensible: taking over her old role as the young intern in the play is an up-and-coming Hollywood star, played by Chloë Grace Moretz, fresh out of rehab and attracting controversy at every turn.
The screenplay – written by Assayas with Binoche in mind – smartly links the relationships of the film’s characters with the relationships and events of Maloja Snake. Valentine and Maria hole up for the summer in Melchior’s old house and rehearse (Valentine taking on the role of the younger woman, of course), and the dialogue they practice is charged with sexual undertones that could seemingly be equally applicable to their ‘real life’ situation. It is never made explicitly clear that Valentine and Maria are lovers but there does at least seem to be some attraction; perhaps more. They may well be sharing the same bed or room in the house, and they may not be; we never get to see, but they certainly share an easy intimacy, stripping off in front of one another before taking a swim, for example. Assayas leaves it up to the viewer to decide, and the ambiguous nature of the relationship in his story can be summed up in an episode where Valentine leaves for the weekend to see a boy she has recently met. Maria watches the car pull away and looks as if she is feeling a pang of jealousy; when Valentine returns along the mountain roads, in a vaguely psychedelic scene set to Primal Scream’s Kowalski, we can either infer that her vomiting at the side of the road is due to drugs or we can infer that this is some kind of guilt or love sickness rendered physical.
The parallels between the play and real life continue elsewhere: Jo-Ann’s affair with a novelist causes the novelist’s unseen wife to attempt suicide, echoing the briefly-referenced ending of Maloja Snake, while there’s a constant theme of the younger characters (Valentine, Moretz’s hot-headed Jo-Ann, the intern in the play) rejecting or leaving the older women (Maria, or the boss in the play). There’s also a strong sense of the veteran actress being usurped by the newcomer (in one late scene the magnificent Binoche pauses momentarily to register the fact that the flashes from paparazzi cameras outside a restaurant are for the younger woman, and no longer for her character), and Maria’s insistance that the play is about the intern rather than the boss causes her to reflect on her own fading relevance; Moretz’s Jo-Ann is a threat to Maria’s position, and is a constant reminder to the older actress that she is aging and out of touch.
Assayas also uses Moretz’s character as a means of poking fun at Hollywood and he brings some gentle humour into the film, incorporating amusing faux-footage of a superhero flick and various clips of mocked-up talkshows, press conferences and gawker-style public footage. There is frustration here that actors in the modern day must increase their celebrity notoriety and/or take on the less-demanding blockbuster roles every now and again to stay relevant, a point reinforced by a brief scene near the end involving Brady Corbet as a hip young director. Does he approach Maria about a part because she has been forced back into the public eye while working with Jo-Ann?
This idea of people being replaced or being instantly replacable is everywhere. We have a young director working on a new version of a play by an old man who dies at the start of the film. Valentine is eventually replaced by someone who looks to be doing a perfectly good job. Maria is being forced to make way for the younger actress. The sense that the main character’s relationships are fleeting and delicate is poetically captured by Yorick Le Saux’s photography, with the maloja snake clouds moving along a valley before breaking up against the imperious Alpine hills and mountains, disappearing into thin air at the exact same point in time that Valentine does the same.
Directed by: Olivier Assayas.
Written by: Olivier Assayas.
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz, Lars Eidinger.
Cinematography: Yorick Le Saux.
Editing: Marion Monnier.
Running Time: 120 minutes.