When I realized that The Clouds of Sils Maria would be a long movie where characters walk through the Swiss Alps and talk about age, love, and identity, I sighed happily and settled in with my large bag of popcorn. Of course, growing up I was the kind of kid whose idea of a good time was to rent everything my local video store had by Bergman, Rohmer, and Kieslowski. Olivier Assayas isn’t for everyone either.
The setup for Sils Maria is so archetypal that it sounds like a parody of a French film. Middle-aged actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) arrives to mourn the death of the director who gave her one of her iconic roles, at age 18: she played a young woman who seduces her employer, a 40-year-old woman, with tragic results for the elder partner. Now, Maria is offered the older woman’s role in a new stage production where she’ll co-star with volatile Hollywood starlet Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz). With the blessing of the widow of the deceased director, Maria retreats to his empty mountain home with her young assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) to prepare for her new role.
If this was Bergman, someone would go mad. If this was Kieslowski, someone would die. If this was Rohmer, someone would have a quick fuck if only to relieve the ennui. I won’t divulge whether any of that happens here, but suffice it to say that in The Clouds of Sils Maria, the fleeting appearance of Kristen Stewart’s ass in a thong plays as a shocking moment. This is an admirably, but almost aggravatingly, disciplined film, where the eponymous clouds roil while the characters simply simmer.
Of course, they simmer beautifully: this could easily be deemed Oscar-worthy simmering. Binoche perfectly embodies her role—at least in spirit, despite the fact that she’s over ten years older than her character seems to be. There’s much talk of Maria as a young woman, and the preternaturally pained performances by a young Binoche leap to mind. Stewart’s performance probably won’t convince her detractors, but it’s refreshing to see her playing smart again. Moretz is wonderful, though writer/director Assayas doesn’t do much to connect the dots between the beautiful train wreck we see in news footage of her character and the poised young woman who eventually shows up in Switzerland.
The core of the film is the dynamic between Maria and Valentine. Their relationship unsubtly parallels that between the characters in the play, and the romantic tension escalates as the two spend long days alone together in the Alps, both drinking heavily. The two repeatedly spar over whether Maria’s new character is sympathetic or pathetic, and Maria may be missing the fact that both she and her character have more power in their respective situations than they realize.
Assayas has a lot of fun bleeding the play into the movie, so we’re often unsure whether Maria and Valentine are trading dialogue or just talking. He also gets them out of the house enough—both through literal excursions like a trip to a casino and virtual ones, such as glimpses into Jo-Ann’s life—that we don’t feel cooped up. Assayas’s deft touch with humor and style ensure that Sils Maria is consistently entertaining, and his characters and casting are strong enough that we’re caught up in the story of these women.
At the end, though, I wondered whether this wouldn’t have been a better film if we had felt cooped up with the characters. I admire Assayas for making a movie where the characters’ desires are more important than their actions—and as movies about aging actors go, I’ll take Sils Maria any day over the unwittingly farcical Birdman—but I do wish Assayas had let a little more of his atmospheric drama fall down to earth.