Friday, May 05, 2017

Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)

France / Germany / Switzerland, 124 minutes
Director/writer: Olivier Assayas
Photography: Yorick Le Saux
Editor: Marion Monnier
Cast: Juliet Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloe Grace Moretz, Brady Corbet, Johnny Flynn, Angela Winkler, Hanns Zischler

Many takes on Clouds of Sils Maria tend to focus on it as a backstage drama in the vein of All About Eve, but that's not exactly right. It's true there's a rivalry between a veteran performer, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), and a younger performer vying for her place, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz). But until the epilogue that is mostly relegated to the level of an ongoing subplot in the background. The real conflict in this picture is between Maria and her personal assistant Val (Kristen Stewart) though it's perhaps less apparent why this conflict is central.

In many ways it doesn't matter because director and writer Olivier Assayas is so accomplished at directing and misdirecting our areas of focus, with a swooning love for motion and static gorgeous images that feel almost second nature at this point. Ultimately, Clouds of Sils Maria may be as shapeless and indeterminate as the metaphorical meteorological phenomena it's named for, that it climaxes on, and that it returns to again and again like touching base of some kind. It's set in the Alps of Switzerland—listen closely enough and you might hear Julie Andrews faintly warbling on the other side of that ridge. Hiking is a daily routine and getting lost can happen too.

In retrospect, it's arguable the movie exists primarily as a formal transition point for Kristen Stewart, on a mission to reclaim her credibility after the commercial success of the Twilight movies (which I haven't seen). No worries there—early followers of Stewart have never had such qualms, and the collaboration with Assayas has to be considered a success. Both were evidently so happy that they collaborated again on last year's Personal Shopper, which interestingly puts Stewart into a nearly identical working occupation even as it is a very different movie, role, and performance.

Clouds of Sils Maria exists in the gauzy nether regions where the entertainment industry and European high culture collide, with elegant people and fundraisers for brilliant causes and high fashion and style. All the beautiful textures of money. For that reason, the casting alone of Binoche and Stewart was inspired. The movie is modern and alienated, like sleek neoliberalism itself, with the most competent people such as Val expertly managing laptops, tablets, smartphones, and constant interruption to stay abreast of all breaking developments, such as someone not able to make a meeting.

In this world alas some things never change and so life inevitably ends at 40, as people retire or are retired into invisibility. Maria, who is an accomplished and celebrated performer now, is about 38. Her career started 20 years earlier with a role in a play and film written by her mentor. The story involved a relationship with an older woman. Now, on the death of her mentor, feeling vulnerable and uncertain, she is persuaded to take the part of the older woman in a London stage production of that same drama.

We get a "Part Two" title card around the 35-minute mark of Clouds, which runs just over two hours. There's also an epilogue, but Part Two is the core of the picture and drama. What we see is two things at once: two gifted natural players going toe to toe in Binoche and Stewart, in scenes that are relaxed and often simply remarkable for all the presence they each register in and out of harmony. And, within the story, we see two characters in Maria and Val who have a natural chemistry but also a gnawing tension between them that is only getting worse.

If that's not enough cognitive dissonance, it's complicated further by the action of these scenes, which involve hanging out together, hiking, and running lines and scenes from the play. Stewart is uncanny here, as she can be, at performing an elaborate nonperformance, working the evocative shrugging and mumbling artfully on multiple levels all at once. You're sometimes not sure if Maria and Val are arguing or running lines. The All About Eve reverberations occur naturally as the play is more or less that kind of story, a power rivalry between a younger and an older woman. From the canon of these things a better comparison might actually be Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (or even Soapdish), but the basic elements are the same in them all: age, youth, glamour, and self-pity.

The small-scale tragedy of the failing relationship between Maria and Val is occurring on more mundane if deeper psychological levels. It's ambiguous, but I read it more as a story of Val's immaturity and envy of Maria's position. You could very well see it differently. Val is more keenly aware of the power disparity between them, so perhaps that makes her the more mature one. It's a bit obscure and literary that way. The most interesting parts for me, all the way through, are when the players go into the technical weeds of narrative and performance, discussing and often disagreeing about character motivations and the meanings of plot points.

It almost gets allegorical about generational differences in ways. The sticking point for Val and Maria more and more comes to be the value of superhero movies. Maria cannot credit them at all (a position I'm sympathetic with). But she's often dismissive and fatheaded about it. For her part, Jo-Ann, the formal rival, has only one screen credit to this point, in a Marvel-style superhero movie which Maria and Val go to see. I'm not sure I can say Assayas's parody is on the mark, but kudos to him for trying. We also see Maria and Val comically sitting side by side in a darkened theater wearing 3-D goggles. But their disagreement on this movie will be where it all founders.

The epilogue then turns everything on its head. Val is gone, never to be seen or even acknowledged again, and has been replaced. The new personal assistant may not be as bright but she's equally efficient and not nearly as abrasive, which feels a little sad. Here is where Jo-Ann's celebrity comes to dominate the story, and Maria's star has diminished greatly. She's left literally begging Jo-Ann for a few moments more of attention, which Jo-Ann declines. In these scenes, Val's absence is deafening, even as they deliver the story to safe and familiar regions of narrative form. Clouds of Sils Maria is a bit of a head scratcher, but I like it for the performances.

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