It's tempting to regard French filmmaker Olivier Assayas' latest feature, the numinous Clouds of Sils Maria, primarily as an exhibition for the talents of its lead actresses, Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart, and to a lesser extent for the film's artful, multi-layered screenplay, penned as usual by Assayas himself. Although it arguably fits Clouds, that dreadful descriptor, “actor's movie,” has always seemed like a bit of a backhanded compliment, hinting that a film's direction is blandly functional or devoid of stylistic imprint. This is not a critique that one can seriously level at Assayas' latest work, which illustrates the director's mature command of the mise-en-scène, as well as a few of his curious signature flourishes. (In particular, Clouds is a showcase for the Assayasian abrupt fade to black, concluding scenes a beat earlier than a more formulaic editing approach might suggest.) Still, Clouds is ultimately a film in which the actresses—and it is overwhelmingly, fundamentally a story about women—take center stage. Rather that crowding them with formal floridness, Assayas gives his performers the space to uncover the endless, twisting corridors that snake through his dialog.
Set primarily in the breathtaking, crystalline landscape of the Swiss Alps, the film focuses on the travails of Maria Enders (Binoche), a renowned French actress of stage and screen. When the viewer first meets Maria and her harried yet resourceful American assistant Valentine (Stewart), the pair are bound for Zürich, where the actress is scheduled to accept an award on behalf of Swiss playwright Wilhelm Melchior, a long-time friend of Maria's and now a virtual recluse. It was Wilhelm's lesbian romantic tragedy Maloja Snake that first catapulted Maria to international fame: When she was just 18 years old, Maria famously portrayed Sigrid, the tale's brazen young office assistant, first on the stage and then in a film adaptation. In the play, the character of Sigrid seduces and then discards the company's middle-aged president, Helena, eventually driving the older woman to an apparent suicide.
Unfortunately, while en route to the awards ceremony, Maria and Val receive word that Wilhelm has died. The subsequent celebration of the playwright's work thus takes on a funereal tone, and Maria's slim enthusiasm for the whole affair slips into grief-fueled doubt. Nonetheless, the actress puts on her red carpet smile and endures the proceedings, despite the distraction of her ongoing divorce and the hovering presence of a despised ex-lover (Hanns Zischler). The post-awards dinner providers her with some face time with celebrated theater director Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), who has been courting Maria to star in a new production of Maloja Snake, this time in the role of Helena. For the new Sigrid, Klaus confirms that he has been seeking Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), a volatile American film actress who is presently straddling the line between It Girl and D-list punch line. Maria had previously been cool to the notion of revisiting the play, but after discussing the project with Klaus she is more receptive.
The aforementioned events essentially constitute an extended prologue: The bulk of the film unfolds some weeks later, as Maria and Val arrive at Wilhelm's hideaway in east Switzerland, near the village of Sils Maria. Overwhelmed by the memories that permeate the place, the playwright's widow Rosa (Angela Winkler) vacates the house and hands the keys to Maria so that the actress can rehearse in peace for her upcoming role in the revival of Maloja Snake. During the subsequent weeks, Maria and Val run lines amid the placid alpine surroundings, at least partly under the theory that the place Wilhelm chose as his sanctuary from the outside world might provide some inspiration. Besides rehearsing the play, the women wander the misty mountain trails, swim in the frigid lakes, and make infrequent forays into the nearby village. On one occasion, they meet with Maria's co-star Jo-Ann and her novelist boyfriend (Johnny Flynn) at a posh local hotel. Having seen the American actress in a dreadful superhero film and perused her tabloid exploits online, Maria is disarmed by Jo-Ann's poise and magnanimity. (“Of course you liked them,” Val snarks at her employer with a grin, “They spent the whole night flattering you.”)
Such detours aside, however, the lengthy middle section of Clouds functions as a sort of cabin fever drama, one focused on the mounting strain that the situation puts on Maria and Val's ambiguous bond. Val's lack of theatrical training notwithstanding, she dutifully plays the part of Sigrid to Maria's Helena, rehearsing the play's emotionally fraught scenes over and over. Although Val is loyal and accommodating, she doesn't keep her opinions to herself, freely offering Maria criticism and even insight into the subtleties of the play. Meanwhile, the older woman grows increasingly frustrated with the role of Helena, a character she finds pathetic and alienating. Both women smoke relentlessly to relieve the tension; the frustrated search for a misplaced package of cigarettes becomes a recurring motif. When not rehearsing, the pair discuss the play's meaning and the motives of its characters, with occasional digressions into related matters, such as the ups and downs of Jo-Ann's career, or the artistic worth of Hollywood blockbusters. In this way, the play and everything adjacent to it begin to consume Maria and Val, stirring up discomfiting undercurrents and revealing fissures in their ostensibly professional relationship.
The contrasts between the lead actresses and their performances are an essential aspect of Clouds. Binoche has gravitated toward a distinct type of character since reaching middle age, but it's a consistently engaging one: the outspoken, put-upon, slightly frazzled professional woman who nonetheless harbors profound self-doubt. (The quintessential Binoche moment is one in which she hurriedly juggles multiple tasks while pleading with pursed lips into a cell phone, “No, no, no, no!,” inevitably at some self-important male listener.) Maria is yet another version of this same ur-woman, whose incarnations have previously appeared in films such as Caché, Flight of the Red Balloon, Summer Hours, Certified Copy, and the otherwise forgettable Elles. Binoche is characteristically ferocious in the role, which highlights how distinct her style is from Stewart's. The younger actress' approach is casual and almost detached, befitting a character who has subsumed her will to the ego of a larger-than-life celebrity. Yet Stewart portrays Val as a woman who is self-aware and comfortable in her own skin in a manner that Maria could never hope to be. While some of Val's Maloja Snake line readings have a tossed-off slackness—befitting a non-actor who is just trying to get through them—at crucial moments she delivers them with matter-of-fact bluntness, and the effect is like a wet towel snapping Maria on the nose.
What's most impressive about Clouds is how Assayas and his performers create multiple levels of conflict within the narratively simple scenario of “Maria and Val rehearse a play." At the proximate level, there is the play-within-the-film drama of the Helena and Sigrid's passionate affair and their inevitable, blistering breakup. The viewer is only permitted scattered glimpses of this story, and Assayas pointedly never shows any scenes in Klaus' final production of Maloja Snake, but the broad strokes are apparent. Despite the straightforward outline—girl meets girl, girl loses girl, girl kills herself—everyone in Clouds seems to have a different interpretation of the play, with each individual perceiving a novel pattern of culpability and weakness in the main characters.
At the same time, Maria's grappling with her role functions as a drama about the actress' discomfort with aging, loneliness, and death. Early in the film, Maria insists that she is Sigrid, and that she has always been Sigrid, ever since the play's original premiere. That fact that middle-aged Maria continues to identify with a character she portrayed as an adolescent reveals a vain denial of time's passage, as does her inability to relate to a more vulnerable older character. Her reaction is pitiable but also wholly understandable. The margins of Clouds are scrawled with the particular indignities faced by actresses as they age, from cruel verdicts of sexual undesirability to wholesale exile from the sort of leading roles that are routinely bestowed on their male peers. Moreover, Wilhelm's death—actually a suicide, as Rosa reveals solely to Maria—has quite naturally nudged the actress into a morbid frame of mind. At one point Maria observes that the performer that first created the role of Helena perished in a car accident not long after the original film was complete. Maria brings up this fact in order to brush it off as a source of superstitious fear, but it's clear that her mortality is weighing on her as much as professional and romantic obsolescence.
On another level, and a bit unexpectedly, the erotic obsession that Helena feels towards Sigrid serves as a proxy for Maria's convoluted feelings bout Val. The intense scenes that they rehearse together gradually become thick with deeper meaning, often conveying emotions that neither woman seems able to confront in other contexts. Maria's dependency on Val is not just that of an overwhelmed celebrity who needs assistance in navigating photo shoots and press tours. Val represents a portal to a generation that Maria simultaneously disregards, disdains, and envies, as much for its youth as for its tastes and affinities. It is Val who gives her employer the lowdown on the celebrity gossip about Jo-Ann, and Val who keeps up with banalities outside the glamorous bubble of Maria's personal affairs. When Val leaves one night to visit a man in a neighboring village, Maria doesn't seem to know what to do with herself, wandering the house aimlessly just as Wilhelm's widow Rosa might have. There is also a subtle but potent sensual component to the women's interactions. Neither Binoche or Stewart overplay it, but it is there, in the way that the women sit and stand in relation to each other, in the touches that occur from living in such close proximity, and in the giggly flirting that seems to emerge once they've had a few drinks. When the pair take a dip in a freezing lake, Maria sheds all of her clothing, while Val leaves on her underwear, a detail that reflects their nationalities but also says much about their perceptions of (and hopes for) the relationship.
As if all these emotional nooks and crannies weren't enough, there is another, metatextual layer to Clouds' drama. It's no accident that Binoche is playing a character whose biography resembles her own in many respects, nor that Jo-Ann—the ingenue-turned-scandal-magnet whose acting abilities are widely questioned—bears some similarity to a younger Stewart. Indeed, much of the dialog in Clouds concerning performance and celebrity has a particular resonance in light of the actresses who are delivering it. Val often finds herself arguing in favor of the culture of contemporary pop entertainment, in light of Maria's vociferous scorn for everything Hollywood. When Maria snorts derisively at big-budget features about werewolves or mutants, it's all too easy to imagine it as a catty, elitist swipe at Stewart's own filmography. When Val advocates for Jo-Ann's point-blank, modernist acting style and for the virtues of her rough-edged public persona in a sea of Hollywood phoniness, it's tantalizing to imagine that Stewart is defending herself against critics and cultural tongue cluckers. While this meta dimension to the film is unmistakable, Assayas refrains from presenting it with the sort of arch knowingness that might have eventually rendered it insufferable. Instead, it glides over the surface of the drama, providing another level of substance but never threatening to overwhelm the story.
As one might surmise, Clouds of Sils Maria is an incredibly dense work of drama, in which every line seems to have a double, triple, or even quadruple meaning. There is even a bit of reflexiveness to be found in the film's script. An argument over the ambiguity of Helena's fate at the conclusion of Maloja Snake foreshadows Clouds' most conspicuous mystery: Late in the film, a character abruptly vanishes from the story, similar to the sudden evaporation of Rita in Mulholland Drive. While there are mundane if eccentric reasons that this disappearance may have occurred, the event has a weird-fiction uncanniness that's hard to shake, particularly given that it corresponds to the appearance of the Maloja Snake referenced in Wilhelm's play: a rare atmospheric phenomenon in which low clouds drift in meandering coils through the high alpine valleys near Sils Maria.
Despite its myriad dramatic strata, Clouds consistently retains a powerful sense of humane immediacy, in that the tale of Maria and Val never gets lost in a snarl of too-clever-by-half curlicues. This, ultimately, is the film's standout achievement: its elegant conjuration of an almost literary-like complexity of meaning within a relatively straightforward, character-driven drama. It's the film's unflinching lead performances and Assayas' terrifically fecund script that enable Clouds to work so effectively in this respect.