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PRINT April 2015

film

Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria

Olivier Assayas, Clouds of Sils Maria, 2014, 35 mm, color, sound, 123 minutes. Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) and Valentine (Kristen Stewart).

“YOU CAN'T BE as accomplished as you are and as well-rounded as an actress as you are and still expect to hold on to the privileges of youth.” The admonishment is delivered by twenty-four-year-old Kristen Stewart to Juliette Binoche, age fifty, in Olivier Assayas’s immensely intelligent Clouds of Sils Maria, which he wrote and directed. Technically, it is Stewart’s character, Valentine, a personal assistant, who does the upbraiding, her words aimed at her boss, Binoche’s Maria Enders, an internationally renowned star. Yet so astute is Assayas’s exploration of the unstable boundaries between performing and being, fact and fiction, past and present, text and metatext that making the distinction between actress and role is often beside the point.

Fittingly for a project that is deeply informed by the real offscreen personae of its lead cast, the origin story of Clouds of Sils Maria can be traced to André Téchiné’s 1985 film Rendez-vous, which marks Assayas and Binoche’s first collaboration and is an early milestone for both: The movie gave the actress, twenty-one at the time of its premiere at Cannes, her breakthrough role; the script, which Assayas cowrote with Téchiné, was his first for a feature-length work. Rendez-vous concerns an ambitious young actress—Binoche’s Nina, a Toulouse native recently arrived in Paris—who, by film’s end, is about to go onstage as the female lead in Romeo and Juliet. By the time of their second movie together, Assayas’s 2008 family drama, Summer Hours, in which Binoche plays one of three siblings struggling to sort out their recently deceased mother’s art collection, both actress and director had achieved worldwide acclaim. Yet Binoche’s work in English-language films, especially in Miramax-distributed titles such as The English Patient (1996), for which she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, gave her a considerably higher profile than Assayas has ever enjoyed. Both the central subject of Rendez-vous—an actress on the verge of a defining performance—and Binoche’s real-life career trajectory in the thirty years since that film’s release are shrewdly reflected and refracted in Clouds of Sils Maria.

During those three decades, other actresses have, of course, ascended, perhaps none quite as spectacularly as Stewart, whose role as the tender, tremulous vampire lover Bella Swan in the five Twilight movies (2008–12) made hers one of the most recognizable faces on the planet. Assayas’s casting of Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria recalls his ingenious decision to assign the lead of Irma Vep (1996)—another metamovie, this one about a contemporary remaking of Louis Feuillade’s 1915 serial Les vampires—to Maggie Cheung, who plays a character (also named Maggie) best known, as Cheung herself was at the time, as the star of Hong Kong action films. Upending the expectations of viewers surely familiar with—and perhaps dismissive of—Stewart’s work in those bloodsucker blockbusters, Clouds of Sils Maria showcases (or reconfirms, for those of us who found in her portrayal of Bella a superb interpretation of surplus teenage emotion) her talents as a remarkably intuitive actress.

In other words, Assayas’s film serves as the vehicle in which Stewart (who, it should be noted, appeared in several non-Twilight movies during that series’ five-year run and who has consistently acted in films since she was ten) reads for—and lands—the “part” of a performer who deserves to be taken seriously. The transformation is akin to the alchemical moment in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), a key predecessor to Assayas’s film, when Naomi Watts, as Hollywood hopeful Betty Elms, dazzles a roomful of industry types—and the actual paying audience for Lynch’s movie—with her astonishing audition. There is a particular perverse joy in hearing Stewart puncture much of the received wisdom about the state of cinema today in Clouds of Sils Maria. As the dutiful yet strong-willed adjutant to a performer grown increasingly cynical about the entertainment industry (“I’m sick of acting hanging from wires in front of green screens,” Maria says early on, explaining why she’s dropping out of the latest X-Men movie), Valentine delivers several eloquent defenses of the industrial cinema her boss decries—the well-reasoned words emerging from the mouth of a young woman who, in real life, starred in one of the biggest movie franchises of all time. (Maybe Binoche had formulated her own version of Valentine’s apologia when she signed on to costar in the 2014 Godzilla reboot, which opened a week before Clouds of Sils Maria debuted at Cannes last May.)

The very character names given to Binoche and Stewart, pleasingly sly if slightly overdetermined, immediately evoke each woman’s defining traits. Although Maria Enders’s prominence is underscored by the fact that her first name is echoed in the name of the Alpine hamlet that gives the film its title and where much of it takes place, end is embedded within Enders, which is also only two letters removed from embers. The name Valentine—significantly, Stewart’s character is surname-less—suggests affection, praise, and love, the attributes of the subordinate. Yet despite their immutable positions as boss and underling, respectively, Maria and Valentine have a relationship that is constantly in flux, the lines between the personal and the professional frequently blurred.

The complexities of their connection are foregrounded after Maria is approached by the highly regarded theater director Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger)—Valentine pronounces him “probably the best of his generation”—to star in a revival of the stage drama that launched her career twenty years earlier, Maloja Snake, written by a Bergmanesque figure named Wilhelm Melchior. (An event in Zurich honoring this never-seen character, who commits suicide on the same day as his tribute, occasions the meeting between the actress and Klaus.) In both the original Maloja Snake—whose title refers to a mysterious cloud formation peculiar to the Upper Engadin—and the film adaptation that followed, Maria played Sigrid, a cunning ingenue who seduces, abandons, and possibly drives to suicide her forty-year-old boss, Helena. In Klaus’s remounting, Maria is to portray the spurned middle-aged lover; the part she originally inhabited is offered to Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), a rising phenomenon with a Lindsay Lohan–like penchant for scandal and self-destruction, her infamous behavior instantly accessible to Maria, who continually googles her potential costar.

Maria’s initial reluctance to accept Klaus’s proposal stems from her understandable trepidation about acknowledging the passage of time, about recognizing that her career, though still flourishing, may have peaked long ago. (Notably, a decade is shaved off Binoche’s actual age; Maria says, somewhat defensively, to Klaus, “If you’re telling me that I’m Helena’s age now, yeah, you’re right.”) Finally agreeing, if hesitantly so, to take on the role, Maria crops her wispy, shoulder-length tresses to a Caesar cut, a butch, no-frills hairstyle suitable to the near-monastic—yet emotionally volatile—existence she shares with Valentine while preparing for Klaus’s production. The two move into Melchior’s house, in Switzerland’s easternmost canton, which has been lent to them by his widow. Running lines with her employer, Valentine, reading the part of Sigrid, proves to be an exceptionally insightful exegete, never more so than when she tells Maria, “The text is like an object. It’s going to change perspective based on where you’re standing.”

During the weeks that the women spend nestled in the natural majesty of the mountains, perspective does constantly shift, vacillating as wildly as the balance of power and levels of cathectic energy between the star and her personal assistant. Just as slippery are the referents for first-person pronouns; when either woman says “I” during their rehearsals, it takes a moment to figure out whether Binoche’s or Stewart’s words are her character’s or belong to her character’s character. Insecurity, however, especially Maria’s, is stated all too clearly. “What do I need to do to make you admire me?” the actress asks her aide, wounded by Valentine’s praise for Jo-Ann’s performance in the 3-D space opera they’ve just seen in St. Moritz.

Despite the rawness of this plea, one of several heated exchanges that occur between Maria and Valentine, particularly when they scrutinize Melchior’s script, their affective intimacy never extends to the physical (though at least one scene, which ends with the two tussling over a joint as the screen fades to black, strongly hints at the possibility). In its nimble, sympathetic treatment of Maria’s self-doubts and her interactions with not only Valentine but also stage and screen professionals, Assayas’s film recalls another great hall-of-mirrors work about a fortyish leading lady who is wildly conflicted about her latest stage role: John Cassavetes’s Opening Night (1977), starring Gena Rowlands. Yet the intensity of Maria and Valentine’s psychic enmeshment—not to mention the same-sex amour fou that drives the plot of the play-within-the-film—places Clouds of Sils Maria within a specific subgenre of movies about female performers: those that suggest, implicitly or explicitly, that the actress-protagonist and her female helpmate/rival are locked in a sapphic entanglement.

That these films, which, in addition to Mulholland Drive, also include Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950) and Bergman’s Persona (1966), are among the best movies about acting ever made largely owes to their indelible central metaperformances. But their appeal may also be explained by their distinguishing characteristic—a trait at once elemental and extraordinary, and all too anomalous. As cinema scholar Patricia White, in a chapter devoted to All About Eve in her book Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability (1999), writes, “The film makes room for two women . . . and makes their intensely invested relationship its subject.” That the two women central to Clouds of Sils Maria are played by actresses representing different generations, career phases, and countries—as well as disparate box-office numbers—means that the viewer additionally experiences the dizzying rush of witnessing real-life backstory morphing into on-screen fantasy. Succumbing to this ontological free fall, we can only swoon.

Clouds of Sils Maria opens in New York and Los Angeles on April 10.

Melissa Anderson is a frequent contributor to Artforum.