CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA (2014, directed by Olivier Assayas, 124 minutes, France)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Where has the time gone? Gazing up at the endlessly beguiling Juliette Binoche I realized it has been over 30 years that she has graced the screen as various intelligent and vulnerable women and yet in each role there was a sense we are meeting her anew. Her latest film, Olivier (Irma Vep, Carlos) Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria reflects on Binoche’s age and sensitivity by teaming her with a pair of acclaimed young American actresses, Twilight’s Kristen Stewart and the cute round-faced munchkin from Kick-Ass, Chloe Grace Moretz. Playing an actress rehearsing for an emotionally rigorous stage play, Binoche gives us the impression that we are seeing her real self more closely than ever yet part of the film’s design is to regularly pull reality out from under our feet.
Binoche plays Maria, an fifty-something actress that is revisiting a play written by her mentor. At the beginning of her career she played the young seductress who loves and leaves her female boss but now years later Maria will be playing the spurned older woman. To rehearse for the role, Maria travels to the Swiss mountains where the play was originally written, bringing with her Valentine, (the capable Ms. Stewart) her dedicated personal assistant. Much of the film follows this pair as they hike around the stunning mountain paths, with Valentine running through the play’s lines with Maria.
As we learn the dynamics of their relationship, the characters begin to merge with the play they are reading. Often we think we’re overhearing a heartfelt discussion about the actress and her hire’s relationship when Maria will muff a line and break character, letting us know this is just a rehearsal. Yet both characters seem aware that the play is echoing their own slowly fracturing relationship, which wavers uncomfortably between friendship and work.
If all this actorly angst recalls the dark dramas of Ingmar Bergman the film itself is not an austere character study. Assayas loves bringing the pair down from the mountains where they tangle with paparazzi, tribute events, and the ghosts of past romantic entanglements. Assayas even sends Maria and Valentine to the movies where the watch a wonderfully goofy superhero vehicle with Maria’s future co-star (Moretz) wearing a day-glo wig and shooting beams of light from the palm of her hand. Valentine takes it all seriously in a post-film discussion and Maria’s mocking critique feels like it cuts her assistant deeper than she knows.
Maria seems to value these younger woman and their ideas but they trigger insecurities about aging and her changing roles, on and off stage. Again, Assayas has seemingly effortlessly invented characters who seem to live and breathe like the rest of us, facing down the indignities of aging and then continuing on to take part in a chapter whose shape is still coming into focus. But as they feign control, like the shifting clouds of the title, life rolls and tumbles in the mist. Despite all the stylized storytelling devices, Assayas’ masterpiece rests in one’s memory feeling more lifelike than life itself.