Clouds of Sils Maria, the latest film from Olivier Assayas, is a return to the behind-the-scenes hijinks of his masterful 1996 feature Irma Vep, swapping out film for theatre, yet retaining the amusing stunt casting (Jean-Pierre Léaud directing actors replaced by Kristen Stewart wryly talking about celebrity) and snappy dialogue. A film about aging and self-transformation, Sils is a janus-faced feature, at once a nuanced study of a relationship that unfortunately shifts into clumsy subtext-as-text whenever the fictitious piece of theatre is acted out. Unlike Irma Vep, it steers clear of leaping into absurdity, and though at times a very funny film, Sils finds itself with a relatively uninteresting final act that reinforces what’s so great about its first two-thirds (namely, Kristen Stewart). Where Assayas’ wife, Mia Hansen-Love, delivered a gradually gutting look at regret in art with her 2014 feature Eden, he seems to only intermittently rouse an affecting moment.1 Sils, then, exists not as an insightful examination of psyches or art but rather an amusing play on identity lifted by some brilliant performances.
Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is an acclaimed stage and screen actress who, en route to Zurich with her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) to accept an award on behalf of her mentor, playwright Wilhelm Melchior, learns of Melchior’s sudden and mysterious death. Once in Zurich she is approached by a successful German theatre director, Klaus (Lars Eidinger), who persuades her to star in his production of Melchior’s Maloja Snake, the play that launched her career decades ago.2 There’s a catch, though – where Enders played the young seductress Sigrid in her youth, she is now to play the doomed Helena, a businesswoman who is driven to suicide by her failed love affair with the younger woman. Holed up in the Melchior house in Sils Maria, Maria runs lines with Valentine, struggling to find her new character whilst being distracted by tabloid stories about teen actress Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), who is set to play Sigrid.
It might sound like an interesting triptych of performances, but all three characters only appear on-screen together once – in a scene Moretz completely steals – and the Moretz/Binoche scenes late in the film are mostly cringeworthy, thanks to some lazy dialogue that spells out Maria’s fear of powerlessness in age. When it’s just Binoche and Stewart on-screen, though, Sils Maria is an absolute delight, crackling with humour and lifted by some incredible chemistry between the two actresses. In fact, the imposition of thematically blunt plot tends to detract from just how enjoyable it is to see the two get drunk and discuss superhero films. In that sense, the film might have been better off had Assayas foresaken his notions of aging and art, instead just giving us a genderswapped My Dinner With Andre. When the sexual subtext is subtle, though, there’s something interesting Assayas is getting at in the melding pot of jealousy and regret, one of the more interesting elements being that by tackling this play sans the influence of Melchior, Maria herself attempts to influence Val, a role she is not particularly well suited to.
On the idea of blunt thematic thrust, Assayas gets caught up conflating reality, art and the imitation of both by the other for a sense of depth in character, when really all of the scenes of line-reading feel somehow both thematically heavy-handed and underdeveloped with regards to the prevailing sexual subtext; in brief, Assayas hints at attraction and lust, then clumsily spells it out for us in the scenes of rehearsal. It doesn’t help that Maloja Snake, supposedly a brilliant work of theatre, seems anything but; histronic dialogue and simplistic character dynamics abound. When Assayas plays with celebrity and metatextuality, he’s much better off; seeing Kristen Stewart ruminate on the paparazzi and Binoche essentially play a version of herself provides a pretty consistent wealth of good dialogue and humour.3
Another area in which the film really excels is in its gorgeous landscape cinematography, courtesy of lenser Yorick Le Saux (Only Lovers Left Alive). The clouds of the English title (the original French title is superior, just Sils Maria) refer to (of course) the ‘Maloja snake’, a cloud formation that winds its way through the mountains of Sils Maria, which is beautifully captured on-screen in an inspired re-creation of a film shown within this film, Arnold Fanck’s 1924 short Cloud Phenomena of Maloja. It’s not only snow-capped mountains that Le Saux dazzles with – a strangely experimental sequence of Stewart driving to see her newest lover, set to a Primal Scream song, is an oddly potent and out-of-place sequence that leaves one wanting much more.
As a tale of artistry and theatre, Clouds of Sils Maria might understand the trials of an actor of the stage more than Birdman, but its insights into the stageplay are as wide off the mark as Iñárritu’s film. When it’s just Binoche and Stewart duelling on-screen, though, Assayas’ film is a sight to behold, as captivating to an audience as the majestic cloud formation is to these characters.
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