WHEN Hollywood characters revisit their youth it tends to be through the school reunion, with generally trite results; how typical of a French filmmaker, and of the cerebral, cinephile Oliver Assayas in particular, that his character should be an actress, who is pushed towards midlife crisis by a role.
Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is an international film star, 40 years old, who is simultaneously dealing with a difficult divorce and the sudden death of the reclusive playwright, Wilhem Melchior, who discovered her twenty years before, when he cast her in his play and subsequent film Maloja Snake. But there’s something even more testing around the corner: the invitation to return to the stage and the play in question, a twisted romance involving a young woman’s seduction and manipulation of her boss, an older woman.
The stage production’s selling point is that it will cast Maria, who made her name as the younger character, Sigrid, as the older victim, Helena. The casting makes sense, but when Maria is confronted with playing a tragic older woman rather than a strong-willed youth, her ego can’t handle it.
“I’m Sig, I want to stay Sig,” she tells her long-suffering personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart). “I don’t like Helena. I don’t feel good in her skin.” Nevertheless, she accepts the challenge, and departs with Valentine to Melchior’s old home in the Swiss Alps to prepare. Eventually they will meet the actress playing Sigrid, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), a rising Hollywood star as well-known for her scandalous private life as her acting.
Assayas has given us some thought-provoking fare in the past, whether the cyber-thriller Demonlover, drugs and parenthood drama Clean, sprawling, true-life crime drama Carlos or his last, the paean to Seventies political radicalism Something in the Air; and with Binoche he has already made a meditation on our relationship with the past, Summer Hours. But this is arguably his densest and most intriguing film, offering reflections on numerous themes: on time, ageing and the delicate web of factors that define our self-image; on the nature of acting, of inhabiting a role; on modern-day celebrity, and the mindless stranglehold that the internet has on people’s lives.
Bubbling around all of that is the possibility of art imitating life, or vice versa, not least with the growing uncertainty as to whether Maria and Valentine are reading the play’s lines together (the PA reading Sigrid) or voicing the feelings of their own, sublimated desire. And Assayas’s casting adds layers of meta-textual nostalgia (he co-wrote Binoche’s own breakthrough film as a 20-year-old, Rendez-vous) and mischief, as Twilight star Stewart makes an earnest defence of fantasy blockbusters, and Jo-Ann’s hounding by the press mirrors Stewart’s own.
Assayas sets most of his action in the majestic Alpine location of Sils Maria, leading to the revelation of the actual Miloja snake, a cloud formation that winds sensuously through a mountain pass; depending on your view, the phenomenon either adds mystery to Maria’s angst, or underlines how trifling it is compared to nature’s forces.
Binoche gives a compelling and typically brave turn – considering how self-referential the film is, we might conclude that she herself is as unbearably pampered and precious as Maria Enders; at the same time, her very presence here reminds us that Binoche has much more integrity than the woman she’s playing.
Moretz is also good, in a deliberately ghastly sort of way. But the outstanding performance is that of Stewart. With her trademark naturalism, she not only gives a strongly believable turn as the all-round fixer – her two phones constantly bleeping as she arranges dresses, photo-shoots, interviews and travel, vets Maria’s scripts and manages her variable emotions – but also conveys a young women struggling to make her own intelligence and instincts felt by someone impervious to them, while keeping in check her true feelings for her boss. Earlier this year Stewart deservedly became the first American actress to win a César, France’s equivalent of the Oscars.
There is a certain risk in the film’s delivery: aside from Valentine, the characters (including the new production’s director, and Maria’s former co-star and lover) are not particularly likeable, living as they do in a bubble of affluence and self-importance; and however true to life, their obsession with Google and the press is unspeakably tiresome.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a deliberate aspect of Assayas’ agenda. Though the subject matter lends itself to satire, he mostly eschews comedy for seriousness, restricting himself to a few easy pokes at commercial cinema. The warts and all aspect notwithstanding, Clouds of Sils Maria rewards repeated viewing, deserving to be considered in the same frame as such memorable films about the entertainment industry as Day for Night and 8½.
This review first appeared on The Arts Desk