In Olivier Assayas’ breakthrough film Irma Vep, Maggie Cheung plays an actress whose role infects her real life. Clouds of Sils Maria also studies the correspondences between script and life. But Assayas’s tread is as careful and expert as Cheung in her cat burglar costume. Although he films moments in which Maria Enders and personal assistant Valentine exchange play dialogue that glosses their own relationship, he stops the nonsense before it smothers his actresses and the audience. If the results are not top tier Assayas, Clouds of Sils Maria remains a piquant movie about transience. We matter — until we don’t.
Art direction and interiors matter in this movie like they haven’t since 2000’s Sentimental Destinies. If Valentine can’t get a porcelain teapot, suite, mini bar, or private entrance for Maria, then she’s worthless to her. In their first scene on a train ride to Zurich, where Maria will accept an award on behalf of playwright Wilhelm Melchior, Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart establish the contours of their arrangement: Valentine handles press, legal matters, and bookings. When she’s working she’s attached to her smart phone. Her reward, besides what is presumably good money, is sharing Maria’s luxuries and acting as confessor and companion. It’s clear Maria respects Valentine; she keeps her around in part because Valentine disagrees with her, often. One of the pleasures of Clouds of Sils Maria is watching two actresses in character make each other laugh over scotch and cigarettes.
An ill-fated train ride though. As Maria finalizes a divorce she learns of Melchior’s death. The introduction she had written for the awards ceremony? It has to be a eulogy. Twenty years ago, Maria had starred in his adaptation of Maloja Snake as Sigrid, the retainer to the actress Helena. They had briefly been lovers. The hot director Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidenger ) corners her at a post-award reception—will she star as Helena? He has waved the script at Jo-Ann Ellis, a young theater actress best known for starring in a comic book adaptation and for launching herself at a car in a drunken rage; she will start an affair with a married novelist (Johnny Flynn) who defines “Aryan.” Maria is unsure. She wants substantial parts but the play calls up unpleasant memories. There is also the uncomfortable fact that age requires her to play the older role.
She and Valentine retreat to a cottage in the Alps, where the bulk of Clouds of Sils Maria takes place. On hikes and in the garden they rehearse Maloja Snake. Where the play ends and their shared moments begin creates an uncomfortable frisson. Maria chuckles often at its ponderosities and forced epiphanies—the kind of response by an actress in her late forties who can rebuke the Important Scripts that established her. It’s also an escape valve for the director. Fluent in English and one of the best critics of his own work, Assayas’ dialogue wobbles like Jell-O in a bowl; it’s the kind of smart talk that Woody Allen used to write for his pompous intellects, unaware that the egg was on his own face. “Her conventional style of acting highlighted the modernity of her performance,” Klaus explains to Maria about Jo-Ann (maybe he’s supposed to sound like a Frenchman’s idea of a German director). When it isn’t leaden it’s expository. “He left nothing to chance. He knew he was sick for a long time,” Maria says about Melchior, as if this were important. But Assayas can also nail an attitude, such as how technology shapes casual judgments: “He’s precise, violent, likes to hit women. Look it up on the internet,” Valentine says early in the movie about a character.
Structured as a two-act structure with epilogue, Clouds of Sils Maria wants to be meta and allusive. It’s the sort of script a young man writes to show his intelligence (meta games fascinate young writers). As I noted already, texts that comment on themselves also contain apologies for bad ideas; defenders can respond to accusations with “The dialogue is supposed to be stilted!” But Assayas, whose late run of astonishing movies demonstrates a comprehension of the connections between people and decor, between people and environment, still has the lightness of a dragonfly skimming the surface of a pond. Much of Clouds of Sils Maria‘s pre-release publicity centered on its indebtedness to The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, the 1972 film about actress and employee in a death grip; but Rainer Werner Fassbinder reveled in the stagebound conventions. Claustrophobic and heady, …Petra Von Kant want to smother the audience; it’s one of Fassbinder’s best but you must be in the mood for it. How fitting that most of Clouds of Sils Maria is set in Switzerland. The country of a thousand years of peace, to quote James Merrill, looks designed for VIP tastes, from its perfectly piled snowbanks and natural wonder of cloud and mist and air to the superb wine lists in every restaurant. Assayas doesn’t gawk at the plushness: this is Maria’s world, he says. Binoche’s performance signals awareness that age and leisure can without stimulation turn into anesthetics. Stewart’s signals impatience with being paid to be a bad cop. Her concentration should surprise no one who watched her in Still Alice, Adventureland, and the first Twilight movie. With her round weary face, Stewart was made for this role.
Carlos and Something in the Air showed Assayas’ ear for the jargon of revolution; Clouds of Sils Maria shows his ear and eye for the rhetoric of flattery. The best of the later scenes requires Jo-Ann Ellis to meet Maria at last. At the hotel bar Jo-Ann compensates for the self-consciousness of being the recovering alcoholic who has to stick to chamomile tea by pinning Maria to her chair with praise. Eschewing close-ups of Valentine, as if he’s weighed her worth to the assembled players, Assayas watches Jo-Ann. You were so elegant in that movie with Harrison Ford? What was it called? Even a woman as smart as Maria isn’t impermeable to praise. No one is. As Jo-Ann talks, it’s obvious her calculation outpaces her intelligence—precisely what makes her fascinating to Valentine, thus confirming Valentine’s first impressions. Hollywood too. Her future is assured—until she turns forty.
Dampened somewhat by its musty subject (even if Assayas has shown he knows the history of French ceramics and the Cold War) in the shadow of Irma Vep, Clouds of Sils Maria is still a better aren’t-actors-a-crazy-bunch-of-guys picture than, say, Birdman. There’s life in every frame, extra-diagetically too, like a scene on the mountain set to Primal Scream’s “Kowalski” that’s as much Pitchfork bait as Maggie Cheung burgling to Sonic Youth’s “Tunic” in Irma Vep. The last third includes a Antonioni-esque reminder of Valentine’s unimportance. She’s an employee. She can be replaced at any time. She knows her place, and it’s this knowledge that gives her exchanges with Maria their peculiar liberty. As Maria herself recedes into a supporting role in the last fifteen minutes, Cloud of Sils Maria become a study of detachment. Her talent for keeping her head while all others lose theirs is as formidable as her acting. Binoche’s too.