Two women on a journey—a middle-aged actress, established icon of European cinema and stage, and her young assistant—engage in a riveting pas de deux in Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria (2014). Juliette Binoche, lovely, elegantly aloof, may have been the obvious choice to play Maria, the modern-day diva, but where did the masterstroke of casting Twilight veteran Kristen Stewart as Valentine come from? She was fascinating in the Julianne Moore Alzheimer’s movie Still Alice as a sort of black hole of refusal, and the power she exerts in Clouds stems from a similar aversion to shimmer. Here, though, she is even more intriguingly opaque, as if she were resisting the star’s obligation to embrace her audience, to make herself an open book. As such, she’s the perfect partner in mystery for the hardly less opaque Binoche in this cryptic, restlessly circling movie of multiple perspectives—possibly the most intriguing yet from the always unpredictable Assayas.
His films may seem almost ungraspably diverse, from the kinky, jet-lag-inducing Boarding Gate (2007) and the propulsive action thriller Carlos (2010) to quieter, more intimate dramas like Summer Hours (2008), until you consider what they share. The French director is a virtuoso of change and motion, whether dealing with the anguish of personal loss or the tectonic shifts of civilization. In Summer Hours, you see both things at once. Another strand of DNA common to all his work is cinema itself. For this son of a screenwriter and former critic for Cahiers du cinéma, movies are not just a frame of reference for his characters but a second skin, a primary color in his palette. He’s as much at home in the realm of silent cinema or autobiographical New Wave naturalism as in modern Hollywood and Hong Kong modes, and his special interest in women (see, for example, his muse Maggie Cheung in 1996’s Irma Vep and 2004’s Clean) in no way conflicts with his delirious delight in action and genre.
In Clouds of Sils Maria, the conversation on directorial influences and archetypes extends to that grand trope of stage and screen, the aging prima donna. The actress’s predicament may be the most acute—lost roles, lost glamour, fewer chances at love, and, perhaps worst of all, having to watch her own deterioration in the shocked, mirroring eyes of a once rapt public—but her fear speaks to an anxiety in all of us, male or female. Stars in competition with younger versions of themselves or with time itself have inspired at least two Hollywood classics, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd., with Gloria Swanson as the fading diva and, also in 1950, Bette Davis in thrall to her most ardent fan, Anne Baxter, in Joseph Mankiewicz’s All About Eve. A little later and perhaps more pertinent are those great two-woman chamber dramas Persona (1966) and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), from Ingmar Bergman and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, in which an older woman’s fixation on a younger one leads to a kind of melting or meltdown of the self, a breach of boundaries, a terrifying overlapping of personality. The erotic is explicit and extravagant in the Fassbinder film, but it is there, subtly, subversively, in all of them, as it is in Clouds of Sils Maria—along with a recognition of all the rich and complicated circuitry of women’s relationships: rivalry, sisterhood, imperceptible shifts of power.
Assayas understands how these nuances and permutations of feminine character represent moments in time, provocation or performance rather than essence. His dramatic instinct is to then step back a little further, change focus, include other points of view, making us feel the transitory within the eternal as he broadens the claustrophobic world of the female dyad until these two majestic beings become dots on the horizon. The cosmic canvas feels almost literal, as their endlessly metamorphosing relationship is played out against the breathtaking infinitude of an Alpine landscape.
We first meet them on a train to Zurich, where Maria is to present a lifetime achievement award to the great playwright Wilhelm Melchior, her first career benefactor and mentor. Out the window may be breathtaking views, but the rarefied atmosphere of the Swiss Alps is itself a kind of illusion. As the train rattles and sways, the modern world intrudes with cell phones and the Internet—those serpentine clouds that give the film its title may as well be called iClouds in this portrait of the anxieties of modern-day show business in a twenty-four-hour media cycle. A bespectacled, fidgety Stewart, preoccupied, seemingly unflappable, conducts business conversations as Maria discusses divorce issues with a lawyer. In the midst of it all, Melchior’s death is announced on the news, and the Internet immediately disgorges a wave of nasty comments of the who-cares-thought-he-was-already-dead variety. The two women arrive in Zurich and are invited by the playwright’s departing widow (Angela Winkler, sharp and memorable in her own right) to stay in their mountain home. Melchior, who, they learn, killed himself, will be a hovering spirit and play a singular role in their time together there.
No sooner have they arrived than Maria is offered a role in the play by Melchior that was a breakout hit for both of them twenty years earlier and is now slated for a London revival. Entitled Maloja Snake after the distinctive cloud formation, the play chronicles the disastrous infatuation of a corporate executive named Helena with a bewitching young office worker. In the original production, Maria dazzled as Sigrid, the ingenue. Now she is being asked to play the humiliated older woman, and she recoils at the idea of taking on a role that will force her to reckon with a very different image of herself.
Alert cinephiles may detect an echo of the Melchior-Maria mentor-protégée relationship in the real one between Assayas and Binoche, who were both bright lights starting out in the eighties, when Assayas, not yet a director, wrote the script for Binoche’s first starring role, that of an aspiring actress from the provinces in André Téchiné’s Rendez-vous. In that sextravaganza, a gorgeous Binoche delectably if somewhat nonsensically disrobed at the drop of a hat, exposing her flesh but, as the cliché has it, concealing her soul. In fact, in the intervening years, a no less luminous Binoche has grown into that sense of interiority, made it almost a hallmark of her persona of privacy, of never giving too much away.
Maria sees her very identity as having been embodied, even formed, in the role of Sigrid, a character she views—somewhat selectively—as a free spirit, a rebel, purely an object of sympathy. Others, however, see the two characters differently: Sigrid as spoiled and manipulative, and Helena as not the passive and pathetic woman of Maria’s imagining but more a tragic heroine, who is possibly using the younger as a weapon to destroy herself. Valentine encourages her to take the role, but Maria objects: “Thinking about a text is different from living it.” “It’s a male fantasy,” she then complains. “No, it isn’t,” Valentine insists.
The women hang out, take long mountain hikes, bathe and frolic in a lake, enjoy tea and chamber music at an inn where Nietzsche once stayed, and, after Maria has finally decided to take the role, rehearse the lines together in sessions that slip dangerously between script and reality. Suddenly Maria turns on Valentine, excoriates her: is she jealous, envious, attracted? No, she is Helena—we suddenly notice the script in her hand. In the sliding back and forth between play and life, Helena and Sigrid come to seem full-fledged characters. The erotic hovers but never plays out, giving the film a subtler frisson than the strenuously literal (if beautiful) rendering of lesbianism in Todd Haynes’s Carol (2015).
The movie, of course, resembles its own chosen metaphor, the slippery snake of clouds that, rather than dissipating when it meets mountain peaks, funnels its way through. We bear witness to it with Maria, and also via a lovely silent documentary (Arnold Fanck’s1924 Cloud Phenomena of Maloja) that the two watch on television. But an equally apt metaphor might be a mirrored disco ball, constantly flashing out fragments of light, images that change, in a dizzying succession of impressions and parallels. The narrative becomes even more complicated when a third woman is introduced: Jo-Ann Ellis, the hot young starlet played by Chloë Grace Moretz, who is being considered for the role of Sigrid. Maria has already shown her resistance to modern technology and the world it has forced on her via Skype and the Internet, especially the corruption of dignity and civility she sees in actors like Jo-Ann, endlessly promoting themselves on talk shows.
One of the great comic sequences comes when Maria and Valentine go to see the futuristic franchise superhero hit that features Jo-Ann as a princess. Prancing around in a silvery bodysuit, she delivers herself of a passionate love soliloquy. Maria is wide-eyed with amused disbelief, Valentine awestruck. Discussing it afterward, Valentine maintains that Jo‑Ann goes “deeper into the darker side of her character.” Despite her superpowers, she has no defenses, Valentine goes on. It’s “fucking powerful.” Maria doubles over, as do we, but somehow the laughter curdles. Could we actually be wrong?
By odd coincidence, a film with many of the same concerns opened almost simultaneously with Clouds of Sils Maria—Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young. In it, Ben Stiller plays a fortysomething documentarian, both smitten with and horrified by a director in his twenties (Adam Driver). Like Maria, Stiller’s character feels ancient; he exhibits the same sense of aesthetic displacement and wounded ego, of being aghast at a younger generation’s indiscriminate enthusiasms. Stiller’s generation made precise aesthetic distinctions, divisions and subdivisions, in popular culture, but Driver’s character, like Stewart’s, thinks everything is wonderful. Now anything goes.
People in their forties feel older than those in their eighties, because they are still in the game and yet being ruthlessly sidelined. Maria may be appalled by the temerity of the young self-promoters, but in a hypercompetitive market that feeds on youth, even thirty-year-olds are looking over their shoulders. In the absence of a protective “system,” the cycles are accelerated, “mature” parts and career death coming sooner. New recruits arrive as inexorably as the latest technology upgrade. “I’m allowed to not be old,” Maria notes shrewdly, “as long as I don’t want to be young.”
More than any previous work of his, Assayas’s latest act of sorcery never stays in one place. Whose head are we in? And where does playacting end and reality begin, or can any such boundary be drawn when reality is so much a matter of perception? With the acrobatic grace of Irma Vep, the director slips into and out of genres, nationalities, languages, creating his own visaless country, of actors trailing their pasts, crossing borders, with unfixed identity cards. Is Stewart atoning for her Twilight franchise superstardom with the hair shirt of European art cinema? And is Clouds of Sils Maria, with its Swiss setting and philosophical musings, European art cinema? If so, from what country? It seems French, but speaks mostly English and Hollywoodese. Language and nationality are one of the movie’s more disorienting puzzles: Binoche, who is clearly French but speaks English to her assistant, says of the tribute she is preparing, “I must find my own words.” But in what language, we wonder?
Summer Hours majestically presided over a landslide it could do nothing to halt. In the story of an art-filled country house and its owners, Assayas celebrated the great French traditions of family, culture, patrimony, even as they were giving way to the forces of global capitalism, but he chronicled this changing of the guard with an eerily evenhanded dispassion. It’s this compassionate detachment that allows him to observe without taking sides in the eternal duel between old and new (when we finally meet Moretz’s Jo-Ann, there is nothing ridiculous about her), money and art, between narrative literalism and magic. In a final mystery involving the ever elusive Valentine and reminiscent of Antonioni, he is unafraid of the unresolved.
Assayas has cited Fassbinder and Bergman as major influences—also Robert Bresson and Michael Mann—but I would add the great Jean Renoir. His famous dictum, “Tout le monde a ses raisons,” applies to Assayas’s characters, but with a modern twist: how rapidly those reasons shift, and how rarely we know precisely what they are.