The career of actors is never easy, and director Olivier Assayas isn’t the first one to bring us a film about the aging actor and the unforgiving nature of the industry in which they work, one of the most recent ones being Birdman or (The Unexpected Ignorance of Virtue). They all generally make the same points, Assayas still treats the material and themes with care and leads his own actors into giving great performances while still giving us a plot that is thought-provoking in Clouds of Sils Maria.
Twenty years ago, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) originated a role when she played Sigrid, a young and impressionable young woman who finds herself in a relationship with her much older boss Helena, but is really the manipulator and strong one in the relationship. After a friend, and playwright of Maloja Snake, dies right before his ceremony celebrating his work, Maria finds herself in Sils Maria, Switzerland to pay tribute to her friend. She is approached by director Klaus (Lars Eidinger).
He is remaking Maloja Snake and wants Maria to be a part of it, but instead to play the role of Helena and not Sigrid. Klaus thinks this is a fantastic idea because it is twenty years later and the role of Helena would fit Maria perfectly. The role of Sigrid will now be played by a young and rebellious and paparazzi-attracting actress, whose big break came in the form of a superhero movie, named Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz).
Maria agrees to play the part, but still unsure of whether or not her heart is completely in it, she retreats to Sils Maria, where she is accompanied by her personal assistant and friend Valentine (Kristen Stewart). While there, they run lines together and have many thought-provoking and intriguing conversations about age, seeing things from the perspective of that age, all while the film parallels their relationship to that of the very play Maria will star in.
Before even broaching the topic of plot, the scenery and setting of the film are beautiful and extraordinary to behold. Assayas captures the natural beauty and astonishment that are the clouds of Sils Maria and uses it as a great backdrop for the film. The scenery is tranquil and peaceful, which contrasts wonderfully with the flow of the characters’ many emotions.
Assayas splits his film into two parts and an epilogue. The first part sees us being introduced to Maria and to the endless business that is her life. There are several things which happen in the first part that don’t correlate very much with the second half of the movie. It’s the first quarter of the film that kind of drags it down, because there’s a lot that’s going on that could have been cut from the film without threatening the overall plot. So, it feels very much like a throwaway piece of the film.
The second half is probably the most intriguing. It moves the plot forward, gives us great character development, and creates a compartmentalized setting where the two lead characters are forced to only interact with each other. The conversations they have are stimulating and as the film progresses, we really begin to see the parallels between their characters and the characters Maria has and will play. The perspective on age isn’t something we haven’t heard before, but Assayas gives us a bit of a refresher in its usage.
Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart have excellent chemistry. They play off of each other and give the dialogue more power than there probably is. They’re both frustrated, Binoche the stronger, taking advantage in having the upper hand, and Stewart the weaker but far more understanding of the two. Stewart seeks to explain the characters of the play to Binoche, who seeks to only continuing to understand Sigrid but not taking to Helena. It creates a tension-filled but friendly atmosphere with the questions of are they or aren’t they hovering in the air the entire time.
Chloe Grace Moretz provides for a solid supporting role, easily portraying the stereotype of Hollywood girl gone bad. Assayas sets up a good contrast, though he sometimes throws in certain parts that are unnecessary overall. Kristen Stewart’s side fling with a photographer and Chloe Grace Moretz’s secret affair with Chrisopher Giles (Johnny Flynn) doesn’t really add much to the film. Regardless of these things, Clouds of Sils Maria stands well and gives us wonderful performances and interesting conversations all around, all while maintaining a sense of class.