I haven’t liked all of Oliver Assayas’ films, but I grant they are always interesting. Cloud of Sils Maria, his latest, is a fascinating if flawed study that has parallel stories of two women in both real-life and in art. It also has an unsolved mystery.
The focus is on Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), a famous actress who was made famous by a play called Maloja Snake when she was eighteen. She is on her way to Zurich to accept a prize by the reclusive playwright who made her famous. But on the way, she finds out he died.
She is accompanied, it seems at almost all times, by her personal assistant (Kristen Stewart) who is both factotum and sounding board for everything Binoche is saying or thinking. The ceremony goes on as planned, but is now a wake of sorts.
The crux of the film is when a young director wants to revive Maloja Snake, which is the story of a young woman seducing an older woman and then abandoning her, but with Binoche as the older woman, not the younger women, whom she originated. Binoche is reluctant to do this–it’s sort of like a one-time Juliet now being offered the part of Lady Capulet–especially when her co-star would be a young train wreck of a movie star, Chloe Grace Moretz.
Binoche ultimately accepts and she and Stewart hole up in the deceased playwright’s home in Sils Maria, a Swiss village. We learn that “Maloja Snake” refers to a weather phenomenon, in which clouds slither through the mountains like a white, puffy snake. Binoche and Stewart read the lines from the play together, and we wonder how much the fictional relationship is like their own. It’s not spoon-fed to us–there is no evidence of a love affair between the two–but there is something uneven in the relationship. In addition to being her employer, Binoche demands a lot from Stewart. She’s certainly kind to her, but Stewart doesn’t have much of a life of her own.
I’m kind of fascinated by who would choose to be a personal assistant, on call to another human being 24/7. Binoche and Stewart are moret than just boss and employee. It seems that Binoche goes no where without her, and talks to her more than an agent or manager. Stewart, deglamming herself with owlish glasses, gives an intriguing peformance. We know almost nothing about her; her background is a complete blank, but she represents the youthful target of movie marketing. When the pair go to see Moretz’s latest film, a superhero blockbuster, Binoche laughs openly as Stewart says it has real meaning, which makes Stewart mad.
The film is very talky–it’s about theater people, after all–but most of it is compelling. Moretz makes a fine Lindsay Lohan stand-in, and the two leads are excellent. But some of the writing is clunky. At one point the playwright’s widow takes Binoche to the spot where the playwright was found dead, a meadow overlooking the valley. This is where the “snake” comes through, and the widow explains it. This is very bad exposition, because surely Binoche would have known this, having been in the play twenty years earlier. Can you imagine starring in a play and not knowing what the title signified?
As for the mystery, I won’t spoil it here, but suffice it to say it is very reminiscent of L’Avventura, and makes one re-think the entire film. I had to go back and wonder whether one particular character was a figment of another’s imagination. You will have your own ideas.
My grade for Clouds of Sils Maria: B+.