With enough XX-genotypes to satisfy several Bechdel tests, Clouds of Sils Maria takes on the vagaries of female friendship while also being an interesting depiciton of actors in an industry that values them less and less. Olivier Assayas' film also features two lead performances, one from the predictably and regularly amazing Juliette Binoche and the other from a surprisingly engaged Kristen Stewart. No more playing with her hair while vacantly staring for Stewart, apparently. Clouds of Sils Maria elevates all involved in its adult, intelligent depiction of the public and the private.
Binoche plays Marie Enders, a respected actress in her 40's fresh off of a role in a comic book movie. Her attentive assistant Valentine, played by Stewart, doubles as a sounding board and a friend. On their way to an awards ceremony in Switzerland, Enders gets news that the director who guided her towards her break-out role has suddenly died. She and Valentine make a detour for his wake, and Enders is approached by a director meaning to remake the play that made her famous. In the play, a younger woman seduces her boss before casting her aside, leading to the older woman's suicide. When Enders was younger, she played the seductress, but she's now meant to play the boss. The seductress will now be played by scandal-prone up-and-comer Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz). Enders accepts the role, and takes up residence in her old mentor's mountain cottage, bunkering down with Valentine to learn the opposite role.
Assayas is methodical and deliberate in establishing the world of his film. The main plot doesn't kick in until what feels like the 45-minute mark in a two hour movie. Everything before then is character work, an introduction to Enders' and Valentine's dynamic. They have a rapport that masks their business relationship. Valentine is totally honest with Enders, and Enders is appreciative of it. There's no sourness at their base, only normal jabs that friends get in at each other. The emphasis on Enders and Valentine from the beginning suggests the film is about them, first and foremost. Once Enders accepts the role, Valentine is revealed to be a strong actress in her own right, vanishing into the seductress role as easily as Enders must have 20 years previously. The professional actress's intransigence and frustration at the role reversal drives a wedge between them, likely tied up in Enders' concerns about growing older herself and losing ground to the Jo-Ann Ellis's of the world. Valentine has to increasingly prop up her friend, altering the balance in their relationship where before, there was only mutual respect.
The introduction of Ellis provides for some generous stances taken toward big-budget Hollywood. In trying to leaven Ellis's tabloid reputation with Enders, Valentine shows her boss clips from Ellis's most recent sci-fi actioner. She plays a mutant or a cyborg or something, and the scene involves all the proper names that tend to make those films sound inherently silly when removed from their context. However, Valentine insists quite persuasively that Ellis is giving herself completely over to the character, no matter how nonsensical or outlandish the character may appear or sound. She's making the performers just as central as the visuals, which is the only way they'll remain relevant as movies become more about brand recognition and product placement. The implication is that Enders' recent foray into this kind of role was not taken seriously. Assayas's treatment of Ellis's start in CGI-driven spectacle as equal to Enders's in the theater is treated derisively by Enders, but the film appears to take the suggestion seriously. In a world where Birdman and its intense disgust for superhero films is the reigning Best Picture champ, that's a surprising position to take in any film, much less a French one budgeted at $6.5 million. Maybe Assayas is ready to cash in and get himself a Star Wars film.
The triumvirate of actresses at the center of Clouds of Sils Maria all give entrancing performances. I'm most familiar with Binoche from her work in Three Colors: Blue, a dour, wrenching film. Here, she's naturalistic and delightful, regularly deploying an infectious laugh and a readiness to trade the day's work for an Alpine hike and nap. As things degrade for her, that warmth gradually fades until a depressing final scene that implies both a smaller win and a larger loss. Moretz is an enigma as Ellis. The character claims that her public persona is an act and a game, and while she's obsequious with Enders, Moretz's sphinx-like face doesn't tip whether what she's saying is genuine or not. When her antics begin to take over the publicity for the play, Moretz manages to keep Ellis sympathetic while she's being decried as a vapid starlet. As Valentine, Stewart is the heart of the film. Where my previous impression of her was as non-committal wallpaper, I'm completely turned around on her here. In fact, her awful performances in Twilight, now juxtaposed with her excellent work here, imply that she had no respect for those films. While Valentine would argue that just makes her a snobby actress, it can't help but further raise my opinion of her. Stewart is completely believable throughout, able to turn on and off multiple settings and live authentically in them. Low expectations might've been a factor, but she has redeemed herself.
As a film about acting, Clouds of Sils Maria gives the viewer a new facet of that profession to think about. As a film about friendship and give-and-take, it transcends that narrower view and becomes universal. While Assayas's Summer Hours remains my personal favorite of his, Clouds of Sils Maria proves to be just as thought-provoking. A showcase for Binoche is always worth seeing, but with a resurgent Stewart complementing her, this is a stand-out film. B+