Starring: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart
Director: Olivier Assayas
The cult of youth is something we tend to think of as an American syndrome, but Clouds of Sils Maria shows that Europeans are also far from immune to it. Juliette Binoche plays Maria, a celebrated actress who leapt to fame at the age of 18 in a stage play about a destructive affair between an older woman, Helena, and a manipulative younger woman named Sigrid. Twenty years on, she’s asked to take part in a revival of the play, but this time in the role of the hapless Helena, with the more juicy, domineering role of Sigrid going to Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz), a Hollywood starlet notorious for her headline-grabbing personal life. Basing herself in the remote Alpine chalet that was the home of the play’s recently deceased author, Maria starts running her lines with the help of her personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart), but thinking about Helena brings out all her fears of ageing, and she’s not happy: “I’m Sigrid! I want to stay Sigrid!”
Around the edges, Clouds of Sills Maria offers a compelling, fly on the wall look at a certain kind of arty celebrity lifestyle, with a beady eye for the pretensions and mannerisms of figures such as the slick, cerebral, PR-savvy young director who’s staging the revival (played with frigid charm by Lars Eidinger, last seen having a ribbon tied round his tackle in Peter Greenaway’s Goltzius and the Pelican Company). But the heart of the film is a series of two-handed scenes between Maria and Valentine as they get to work in their mountain retreat. As they bicker and laugh and discuss the characters, it would seem that there’s something of the Helena-Sigrid dynamic in their relationship, with Maria (who’s in the throes of divorce) perhaps over-dependent on her young assistant, and this familiarity breeding signs of contempts in the increasingly argumentative Valentine. Or are Valentine’s flashes of aggression simply a reaction to being swallowed up in the on-going saga of Maria’s life and career?
Juliette Binoche delivers a performance that’s as warm, earthy and complete as you’d expect, taking Maria from the much in demand, world-weary diva behind dark glasses of the early scenes to a much more raw, exposed, unbuttoned character. But the real revelation is Kristen Stewart, whose Valentine is a combination of ungroomed, bespectacled, nerdy meekness with a touch of needle that comes out in the jutting of her jaw, the angularity of her stance and her occasional verbal sparring with Maria.
Where the film is less convincing is in some of its more generalized musings, not to mention its notion of an eternal struggle between cruel, thrusting, arrogant youth and faltering middle age (which seems no more true than to depict, say, youth as a time of insecurities and middle age as smug and complacent). Still, there’s no gainsaying the brilliance of the way Helena and Sigrid’s antagonism reverberates in the lives of Maria and Valentine and open up fractures between them. Throughout, director Olivier Assayas and his two lead actresses achieve a style of seamless naturalism where everything seems spontaneous and improvisatory, and the whole thing quivers with life and the mystery of what it means to be human. 8/10
EXTRAS 22-min interview with Olivier Assayas, with slightly hollow, echoey sound, but very interesting. He talks about writing the script specifically for Binoche, the enormous amount of prep she does (as in the film), and reveals that he prefers her acting in English. We also learn that he originally planned to use Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant as the play within the film. 6/10