In writer-director Olivier Assayas’s “Clouds of Sils Maria,” Juliette Binoche is playing an actress. In a sense, we are watching a performance about a performance. I would not make the mistake, however, as some critics have, of assuming Binoche is essentially playing herself. (A quick survey of her eclectic career dispels that notion.) But it’s also true that most actors have an irresistible urge to dramatize their innate theatricality – the best recent example is Al Pacino in the unjustly neglected “The Humbling” – and Binoche here certainly fills that bill.
She plays Maria Enders, an international star who broke through as an 18-year-old ingénue in an Ingmar Bergmanesque production written by a celebrated playwright, Wilhelm Melchior. Years later, as Assayas’s film opens, Melchior is about to receive a tribute in Zurich, Switzerland, at which Maria is scheduled to speak. His sudden death converts the tribute into a memorial.
Accompanying Maria is her American personal assistant Val (Kristen Stewart), who is hyperattuned to her boss’s every mood – and there are plenty of them on display. Maria’s main conflict is whether she should accept the role of the older woman in a London staging of the same drama that kicked off her career. For reasons more neurotic than practical, she wavers until the fawning hotshot director (Lars Eidinger) finally wears her down. Maria’s reluctance is bound up with her fears of aging, but she also knows a good role when she sees it. (She demeans her occasional Hollywood work-for-hire by complaining, “I’m sick of hanging from wires in front of green screens.”) Without her full awareness, her doing the play represents her rite of passage as a mature actress.
The part of the 18-year-old is to be played by Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), reputedly highly talented despite her Lindsay Lohan-like off-camera shenanigans. Although she seems almost preternaturally poised upon meeting Maria for the first time, her extracurricular scandalousness remains intact. (She is carrying on a not terribly discreet affair with an older, married British boyfriend.) The shock here, and it really shouldn’t be a shock, is that Jo-Ann is much more assured, as both person and actress, than Maria. Jo-Ann is too young and headstrong to have doubts; Maria is too far along for such certitude.
Assayas knows how to create an embracing sense of intimacy among his players, and this shows itself to best advantage in the many scenes between Maria and Val. This is one of the few films that captures the complex intensity of the diva/personal assistant dynamic. Stewart, who was also very fine as Julianne Moore’s daughter in “Still Alice,” seems at her best playing one-on-one opposite strong older actresses. Binoche’s performance, which is much more high-styled than Stewart’s, doesn’t always ring true, but that may be because she is playing a character who can’t pass a mirror without peering into it. Self-consciousness is her armature.
The film’s title – which, come to think of it, is too self-conscious – derives from a meteorological phenomenon called the Maloja Snake, which is sometimes visible in the Engadine valley near the Alpine town of Sils Maria. Low-lying mists and fog move snakelike through the mountains – a sight to behold for sure, although its metaphorical relevance to the story is about as substantial as a fluffy cloud. Grade: B (Rated R for language, brief graphic nudity.)