The movie’s title, “Clouds of Sils Maria,” refers to a natural phenomenon found in the Sils Maria municipality of Switzerland for which the fictional play within the film, “Maloja Snake,” is also named. Both titles designate the same thing, spectacular clouds that snake around mountains in the Swiss Alps. Two different takes on the same thing is also a running theme in this latest film from writer-director Olivier Assayas, a fiction that runs in parallel to another fiction within the fiction.
Assayas starts off using a handheld camera on a shaky train, the film’s wobbly image reflecting the hectic life of renowned actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche). She is in the middle of a fussy divorce and on her way to accept an award for Wilhelm Melchior, the playwright who discovered her over 20 years ago. Maria is stabilized only by her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) who handles her stream of unending phone calls and micro-manages Maria’s daily life. Whereas Maria is tense, unsure, and frequently agitated, Val is decisive, clear, together, and even more knowledgeable and aware.
While still on the train, Maria discovers that Wilhelm has just died, a suicide after a long illness as it turns out. Maria’s breakthrough play by Wilhelm, “Maloja Snake,” also became her breakthrough film, leading her to a long career in European films and then to Hollywood to work with the likes of Sydney Pollack and Harrison Ford. In “Maloja Snake,” Maria originated the role of Sigrid, a young ingénue who becomes the assistant for a successful older woman, Helena. Helena falls madly in love with Sigrid and her obsession destroys her (a similar story was told in the 1972 martial arts film “Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan”). Now, a famous director, Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger) is bringing “Maloja Snake” back to the stage and wants Maria in the role of Helena while casting Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz) as Sigrid. Jo-Ann is a young boisterous hellion of an actress with a number of trashy antics captured on Youtube.
Maria is superstitious and does not want the part of Helena as the actress she originally worked with in the part died a year later in a car accident. She also identifies with Sigrid and not Helena and sees them as opposites. Klaus disagrees stating that they are one and the same person and that Sigrid will grow up to become Helena, precisely what Maria now does not want to do. But Val loves the play and Jo-Ann is Val’s favorite actress, which makes Maria jealous. After being intrigued by Jo-Ann from searching the internet, Maria consents to Klaus. On the internet, Jo-Ann comes off with a haughty disregard for what others’ think, but when she meets Maria, she is nothing but differential and showers her with flattery.
As the movie progresses, the parallels between the fiction of “Maloja Snake” and the events in Maria’s life become unmistakable. Though not romantically attracted to Val except perhaps her youth, Maria’s dependence on Val mirrors Helena’s on Sigrid. Maria runs lines with Val in scenes of great intimacy and power, but Maria’s disregard for Val’s opinions begins alienating Val from her. Another distinguished actor, Henryk Wald (Hanns Zischler), worked with Maria when she was 18, had an affair with her, and abandoned her in a sort of role-reversal of the Helena-Sigrid dynamic. Assayas throws in some parallels to real life as well with Jo-Ann becoming famous from being in a superhero movie just as Moretz did from “Kick-Ass” while the character of Jo-Ann is clearly inspired by the likes of Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton. Maria herself is not that different in career trajectory from Binoche.
The movie gives a terrific sense of what the play “Maloja Snake” is like, and it makes one wish the play were real to experience whole. Despite establishing the play’s story and then the film engaging in a lot of life imitates art imitates life symbolism, “Clouds of Sils Maria” is not predictable. Ultimately though Assayas’ heart is less in the narrative than the ideas being presented. The movie is held together by Assayas’ ruminations on people’s perspectives and how it plays out in dynamics of age vs. youth and maturity vs. innocence. Maria’s perspectives are biased by her disposition for clarity, the high brow, and realism, and they clash with Val’s with her intrigue for ambiguity, the utility of low-brow genres, and fakery that can nevertheless get at deeper truths. But Assayas also shows Maria plagued by contradictions. She complains about Google and the internet until she needs it. She likes Jo-Ann’s swooning over her until it stops. She rejects Val’s input but prizes her dedication.
Assayas consistently has the characters turn what starts off as subtext in a scene into text reflected in dialogue. This shouldn’t work, yet it does because the ideas are engaging and the acting so strong. With all of the overt dialectics, the film could easily become too self-conscious or academic or obvious. Assayas walks right up to that line but never crosses it. He takes his time setting up the entire complicated scenario of the film’s plot, and the measured pacing could be off-putting if it wasn’t all so capably done. Assayas’ style is a literary as well as a visual one. Most of his films include many small character details and a hefty amount of emotional complexity, which aptly describes “Clouds of Sils Maria” as well. His direction only goes haywire in one out-of-place scene merging imagery of Val driving to a soundtrack of some particularly awful acid space rock.
Binoche is in her usual strong form, but Kristen Stewart has never been better, possibly even overshadowing Binoche, which is high praise indeed. Stewart exudes a powerful lived-in quality in Val, a strong comfort in her own skin, and her presence matches Binoche’s in every scene. For once however, Moretz, who was so good in “Kick-Ass” and “Hugo,” is the weak link in “Clouds.” She lacks the self-assuredness of her character, which admittedly is the most plot-contrived element in the story. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that an arty theater director would cast an infamously bad-girl movie actress, but it’s a stretch.
Yorick Le Saux does a masterful job lensing “Clouds of Sils Maria,” and it doesn’t hurt that he has the gorgeous Swiss countryside to work with. When the real Maloja Snake, the clouds of the title, finally makes its appearance, it’s breathtaking.