Deep Focus: Clouds of Sils Maria
I HATE OLD POETMEN!
Especially old poetmen who retract
who consult other old poetmen
who speak their youth in whispers,
saying:—I did those then
but that was then
that was then—
O I would quiet old men
say to them:—I am your friend
what you once were, thru me
you'll be again—
Then at night in the confidence of their homes
rip out their apology-tongues
and steal their poems.
—Gregory Corso, “I am 25”
Juliette Binoche catalyzed the captivating Clouds of Sils Maria on the set of Summer Hours (08), when she told writer-director Olivier Assayas that their shared history lacked some essential component—a film waiting to be made that would tap the very roots of their artistry. Assayas had helped catapult Binoche to French film stardom by co-writing the fluid, jolting erotic melodrama Rendez-vous (85), in which she played a hyper-sexualized gamine. As Nina, a poor girl from the provinces, the 20-year-old Binoche moved like a scarlet streak through the lower straits of Paris theater, acquiring a string of male devotees without violating her own peculiar integrity or putting herself at spiritual risk. Binoche was hailed as a born screen performer playing a quintessential creature of the stage—a woman who accrues identity and depth from her roles and her collaborators.
That’s the suggestive backdrop to Assayas creating Clouds of Sils Maria, a movie that uses off-screen associations and onscreen Pirandellian games to fuel a generation gap comedy-drama that’s playful, harrowing, and profound. Last summer, Binoche drew an enchantingly authoritative portrait of a painter—partly because she is one—in Fred Schepisi’s Words and Pictures. Here she’s frank, charming, and poignant as Maria Enders, an international A-lister who shot to prominence playing Sigrid, a Nina-like free spirit who becomes the lover and personal assistant of her boss and eventually drives her to suicide.
At the movie’s start, Maria railroads to Zurich and prepares to accept an award for her breakthrough role’s creator, only to learn en route that he has died. Prodded by her assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), and a persuasive though suspiciously chic director named Dieter (Lars Eidinger), she agrees to perform in a theatrical revival of her star-making hit—this time as the older woman, Helena. Youthful film-and-tabloid phenomenon Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz) has signed to play Sigrid. She’s known for superhero films and scandal. Dieter insists that she’s a theater-tested talent.
This film had the potential to be too precious for words, but Assayas’s underlying drolleries put you at ease. From the start, we see how interwoven Valentine and Maria have become by how the assistant pronounces with sotto voce certainty on whether the star will speak as promised at the prize ceremony and be properly fitted for a svelte Chanel gown. Binoche, by the way, looks stunning all made up, with hair styled to her shoulders—like Tina Fey at any given awards show. It’s wonderfully entertaining to see the seasoned, wily Maria toy with an ex–leading man and lover she despises, who delivers a speech at the memorial. She rejects his admiring yet reductive view of the play as a masochistic melodrama, though she actually agrees with him. She dashes his hopes for extending the evening, then she hands him a card with her room number.
Assayas sounds deeper, more troubling grace notes, too. At the playwright’s home in the nearby town of Sils Maria, his widow (Angela Winkler) blithely dumps a pile of notebooks into the fireplace. She soon hands the house over to Maria as an ideal space for her to work on the play, joking that there aren’t any ghosts. Maria brings the ghosts of the past with her.
Assayas stages Maria’s unofficial rehearsals with bracing directness. Maria and Valentine know the play so well that they can do it virtually “off book.” In their virtuoso on-and-off duet, Maria goes in and out of character, depending on her fluctuating insights, attitudes and moods, while Valentine is so relentlessly at one with Sigrid that we realize she’s acting the part only when she reads the stage directions. As soon as Maria goes up against this whip-smart young woman, she regrets her decision to take on the older woman’s character. Sigrid was a career-defining role, and Sigrid’s defiant freedom has defined Maria’s life, too. Dieter insists that Helena, the supposed victim, and Sigrid, her apparent conqueror, are true mirrors of each other, not identical but opposite mirror images. Valentine tries to persuade Maria that Helena’s vulnerability will draw her closer to the audience, who’ll see her as more sympathetic and complex than Sigrid. But Maria resists, resists, resists. Valentine takes this aesthetic rejection personally. She feels that by ridiculing her reading of the play, Maria is condemning her sensibility and intelligence and dismissing her as part of a shallow generation, weaned on escapist blockbusters and connected to the world by social media.
You come to know “Sigrid” and “Helena” as intimately as you do Valentine and Maria. As the star and her assistant read lines, they suffuse the dialogue with all the clashes in style, attitude, and mindset that would emerge between a 40-year-old like Maria (Binoche is now 51) and a twentysomething like Valentine (Stewart is now 25). Assayas is inspiringly unassuming. It’s difficult to think of another world-class writer-director who can wring so much humor and irony from Maria’s attraction-repulsion to the Internet age and from Valentine’s readiness to call her on it. Their comic-dramatic colloquies—rushes of energy interrupted by splutters, stutters, and flubs—bring out the best in Kristin Stewart, the same way Barry Levinson, another master of seemingly unrehearsed behavior, did for the teenage Stewart in What Just Happened (08).
Stewart is here as marvelous as only a natural movie star can be: she’s “real” yet heightened, and there’s nothing narcissistic about her intensity. She creates, in Valentine, a smart, energetic young woman who prizes maturity more than Maria does herself—yet she also forces Maria to understand that youth does have its privileges. The scene of them attending Jo-Ann Ellis’s latest 3-D space opera together, and arguing about it afterward over beer and grub at a casino, is a contemporary classic—emphasis on both words. Valentine argues that Jo-Ann brings a complex presence to a genre whose conventions aren’t any lamer than other movie formulae. Maria can’t get beyond the surface silliness and stupidity. Assayas displays his endless capacity for ironic invention by compelling Maria to crown the sequence with one of the corniest clichés of movie comedy: a projectile spit-take.
The movie is called Clouds of Sils Maria because of the playwright’s obsession with the Alpine mountain event of the “Maloja Snake.” It’s a thick, puffy white serpent that fills the Upper Engadin Valley when warm air ascends the Maloja Pass and morphs into clouds. The name of the play-within-the-film is Maloja Snake; it’s the main source of the film’s unaffected visual poetry. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux’s elegant images of rugged, pristine heights and hollows provide an invigorating backdrop to Maria and Valentine’s—and Helena and Sigrid’s—verbal sparring. You want them to synthesize their arguments, but when you least expect it, an argument erupts and their rapport disappears. All the moving parts of this film mesh. It’s inherently funny that no movie or stage person seems to notice that Valentine is gorgeous simply because she wears big glasses and grungy outfits. Let’s just say that her near-invisibility pays off in a startling climax that comes together in your head—and makes you wonder whether all these debates took place in Maria’s.
Stewart told People this week that Maria represents performers “who are interesting and good and strive to do cool stuff and do stuff that makes people think,” while Jo-Ann stands for the “surface BS, put-together commercial/commodity-type actresses.” But Stewart doesn’t exhibit that prejudice when Valentine defends Jo-Ann, and Moretz doesn’t when she plays Jo-Ann. As a woman, Jo-Ann is alarmingly relaxed in a world where scandals spread at the speed of keystrokes, but as a performer she’s wide-awake and sharp, whether she sheds a tear in a sci-fi showdown or shuts down Maria’s suggestion that she extend a moment in the play. What makes Clouds of Sils Maria hopeful—and, ultimately, a comedy—is that Maria learns from both young women, or at least sees how they connect to the younger self that’s still inside her.
Assayas (who is 60) is the kind of seasoned artist who can revel in youth and maturity without sentimentalizing either. How telling it is that he put Gregory Corso’s poem “I am 25” at the center of Something in the Air, his memory-saturated film about the politicized Paris of the early Seventies. In Clouds of Sils Maria, he wants Maria to resist becoming the older artist who says: “I did those then/but that was then/that was then.” He brings Binoche triumphantly into the here and now.