By Eric Kohn | Indiewire May 23, 2014 at 9:29PM
Olivier Assayas directs some of the best movies in contemporary French cinema, but his output often doesn't receive hyperbole. His work combines a lot of talk and restraint; even espionage drama "Carlos" filled its five-hour running time with more strategizing and interpersonal relationships than action. Coming-of-age stories "Something in the Air" and "Summer Hours" rely on nuanced exchanges.
"Clouds of Sils Maria," which centers on the struggles of an aging actress and her personal assistant, follows suit. However, it's also a cynical look at the business of making movies that explores why such narratives present a challenge for viewers. As such, it presents an ideal access point to his other work.
Compared to his last few efforts, "Clouds of Sils Maria" contains a far more straightforward plot: Legendary film actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) struggles to stay relevant by agreeing to star in a revival of the play that launched her career 20 years earlier. But instead of playing the key role of a young woman who compels her boss to suicide, she agrees to take on the less flattering part of the employer, while current it girl Jo-Anne Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz) lands the lead.
Maria heads to the sweeping getaway of the Swiss alps with her trusty assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) to rehearse the part. Buried in glasses and tattoos, Stewart fully inhabits her role as a credible young woman riddled with self-doubt that nicely complements the fears of aging that plague her employer.
The typically great Binoche conveys a tantalizing mixture of confidence and unease as she considers her glamorous past and undetermined future, slipping in and out of character while running lines with the ever-supportive Valentine. Binoche's layered performance calls to mind her memorable turn in Abbas Kiarostami's "Certified Copy," in which her character similarly veered from one personality to another, while the full nature of her identity remained uncertain. In the far more literal plot of "Sils Maria," the fictional material allows Maria to explore her fears and regrets through the same creative outlet that put her on the map. Unfolding against a landscape of rolling hills and billowing clouds, it's an expressive backdrop for what's essentially a performance-driven look at the apprehensiveness surrounding all walks of life.
Assayas casts an even wider net by situating Maria's difficulties in the context of an industry that's indifferent to them. The filmmaker fleshes out the character's increasing disconnect from mainstream success by showing her watching clips of newcomer Jo-Anne Ellis (Moretz, in her strongest role to date) on her iPad and expressing her hesitations to her largely supportive agent and director.
"Clouds of Sils Maria" truly comes alive in its depiction of her curious relationship with her assistant, for whom she adopts a maternal role even as she grows to resent the younger woman's limited perspective.
In one standout moment, after the duo attend a cheesy science fiction movie in which Ellis stars—marking the rare presence of special effects in an Assays movie—their conversation develops a strangely meta dimension as the Stewart character makes the case for the blockbuster's hidden meanings. It's as if the actress herself were staging a defense of the "Twilight" franchise. "Despite her superpowers, she's defenseless," Valentine insists, which prompts Maria to burst out laughing. If Valentine speaks for the sensibilities of a younger generation, Maria's instinctual rejection shows the extent to which her currency has waned. While the scene has an unmistakably humorous edge, it also carries a deeper sadness defined by its central conundrum.
Assayas goes one step further by cannily playing off expectations of Moretz's character's superficiality, then revealing her more sophisticated qualities during the final half hour. While Maria dismisses Jo-Anne's abilities as "cartoonish psychology," the movie itself is devoid of it. If anything, "Clouds of Sils Maria" suffers from not applying satisfactory background information about its supplementary characters, mainly using the two younger women to complement Maria's internal crises. But that decision lends itself to a careful study of her disconnect with the world around her, particularly as it pertains to the shifting gears of fame, which she eventually confronts when coming to terms with Jo-Anne's larger star power.
Ultimately, the ideas in "Clouds of Sils Maria" points to the tragedy of talent losing its currency in an ever-changing marketplace. It's a simple assertion, but it effectively illustrates how a basic point has been lost on so many people. That takeaway makes "Clouds of Sils Maria" into an argument for its own existence: Real environments and intelligent exchanges tell better stories than any modicum of escapism.
"Clouds of Sils Maria" premiered this week at the Cannes Film Festival. IFC Films will release it in the U.S. at an undetermined date.