Backstage Pas de deux: Clouds of Sils Maria

04/08/2015 6:50 AM |
Photo courtesy of Sundance Selects

Clouds of Sils Maria
Directed by Olivier Assayas
Opens April 10

It’s not often that a filmmaker takes a challenge head-on and, without aspiring to create a self-aggrandizing masterpiece, makes an exceptional film with its own weather system of feeling and elusive, ineffable workings. Olivier Assayas has always chosen his material with a hypermodern self-consciousness and fashioned his films with an equally self-aware syncopation, a higher state that’s cool to the point that his last film, post-68 reminiscence Something in the Air, could seem oddly bloodless. With Clouds of Sils Maria, the 60-year-old director sets loose a superb, mysterious drama about the relationship, the flux, between an aging actress (Juliette Binoche) preparing for a stage role in Switzerland, and her personal assistant (Kristen Stewart).

You might call this a new version of the backstage drama, though in fact much of it takes place in a mountainside house lent by the widow of a famed playwright whose death first puts the film on its first off-kilter step. Maria Enders (Binoche), mid-divorce, speeds on a train with Val (Stewart) through the Alps, toward an award ceremony for the playwright that becomes a memorial. The play she thereafter agrees to undertake, Maloja Snake, is the same one in which she’d played the ingenue role herself, years ago; now, swapping fates, she’ll be the older character who’s taken down a peg. It’s a reckoning of sorts, with multiple reflections and refractions taking place, between actor and assistant, actor and self, assistant and self, text and life, public and private, high and low, past and present.

Those binaries sound a little rigid—this is something like a dance, or running battle, or simply ongoing conversation that never quite lets up, as the connection between Maria and Val is constantly renegotiated. Amidst the anodyne backdrop of the Alps and cosseting hotels, Assayas uses the close-yet-removed, intimate-yet-efficient personal assistant relationship for some heightened perception of character and shifting emotion, backstage and stage collapsed into one. It’s a film that envelopes you without your realizing it, curling its seemingly simple, ever unpredictable story not unlike the heavenly phenomenon of the Maloja Snake, a formation of Alpine valley clouds (glimpsed in a clip from a silent film).

Embodying different generations and styles of acting, Binoche and Stewart are improbably well-matched, especially when they feel mismatched. Binoche’s respected theater doyenne, who’s ever trying to stay up to date, throws everything at Stewart’s bespectacled girl Friday, who on a movie outing mounts a serious defense of the sort of superhero character played by a Lindsay Lohan figure (Chloë Moretz) who will star opposite Maria in the play. Assayas’s highly intuitive dialogue includes the sort of exchanges you don’t much see, a whisker-sensitive rendition of the shaping of opinion and intention, with more impassioned feelings flickering at the edges. Yet throughout, there’s a pregnant sense of suspense, too, achieving something like the late great Oliveira or Kiarostami with Certified Copy, or maybe Rivette, yet utterly grounded.

As fun as Carlos could be, and affecting as Summer Hours could be, the magic of Clouds of Sils Maria makes it Assayas’s strongest work in a decade, and feels all the more satisfying from a filmmaker on so relentless a search for fresh truths as this one.