There is a scene around two thirds into Clouds of Sils Maria, the latest film from French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, where forty-something actor Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) and her twenty-something personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) go to see a goofy sci-fi epic. That film is set on a spaceship and features characters with neon hairdos and colorful costumes shouting inane dialogue. Valentine and Maria gaze at the screen, the former wearing a grin of goofy enjoyment, the latter bored, even taking off her 3D glasses to see if they are worth wearing. Discussing the junky blockbuster afterward, Maria snorts at the headache-inducing flick. Valentine responds, saying that even if the movie is full of simplistic sci-fi pop psychology, it is no deeper than a more serious film.
Of all the meta comments to spill out of the thematically overbearing Cannes favorite, that may be its most telling. Clouds of Sils Maria tries to be a serious film about an aging actor reflecting on her life and career, as she prepares to give away the part that was her breakthrough role 20 years ago to a hot teen celebrity. However, its commentary about Hollywood is not very sophisticated and the parallels between fiction and reality so obvious that little of them are clever. As Valentine would insist, Assayas’ latest drama is not a very deep movie underneath its art-house clothing.
Clouds of Sils Maria opens on a train, as Valentine tries to make some arrangements for Maria. The duo are on the way to Sils Maria, where the actor will accept an award on behalf of Wilhelm Melchior, a director who gave Maria her first shot at fame – and also had a brief, passionate affair with her. On the train, Valentine receives a call that Wilhelm has died. With the director’s name back in the spotlight posthumously, the attention goes to that play (and film adaptation) he wrote and directed Maria in, a steamy romantic thriller called Maloja Snake. (The Maloja Snake is a long trail of clouds that snake through the peaks of the Sils Maria mountainside, and Assayas returns to this picturesque footage several times during the film.)
As news of a re-staging of Maloja Snake grips Hollywood, Maria ends up cast in the role of Helena. In the play, Helena is a powerful woman who initiates an affair with a much younger intern, the ravishing Sigrid. Maria played Sigrid when she was only 18 and the attention she received for her portrayal jumpstarted her film career. However, as she blusters through the text with Valentine, Maria is flummoxed; Helena is just not as complex and fun to play as Sigrid. Everything is written to glorify Sigrid and diminish Helena.
Similar to Maria’s trouble sinking into the role of the older, more damaged and destructive woman, Binoche is also too good for this under-written character. When the subtext of Maria, her journey and desires are so obvious it can hardly be called subtext, there is not much room for an actor to cater the role to her own needs. Binoche wanders around, trying to find purpose and meaning in the dialogue, just as Maria tries to bring something fresh out of this new reading of Maloja Snake.
While Binoche tries to bring something new to the old trope of the anxious, aging actress, her younger counterparts leave unscathed. Kristen Stewart, a fine actor whose reputation has dampened due to her involvement with the Twilight franchise, eases beautifully into a role of a woman both dazzled and diminished by the state of the movie business and celebrity culture. Clouds of Sils Maria’s most meta delight is watching Stewart, who is no stranger to tabloid fodder, play a character who skewers members of the press for their infatuation in the mundane daily lives of celebrities.
The film is mostly a two-hander between Binoche and Stewart. While Assayas restrains making their relationship too much of a mirror of the Maloja Snake storyline, he sometimes cannot resist. When Valentine does scene readings with Maria at one moment, we do not realize their dialogue comes from a source material until we see Valentine holding up a book with the text. One wishes the Valentine character had been more singular and less of a construct of the screenplay.
Meanwhile, Chloë Grace Moretz makes the most of a small role as Jo-Ann Ellis, the trashy, spoiled, foul-mouthed substance abuser – a Miley Cyrus of the cinema – who gets the role of Helena in the new stage version. In clips that Maria (and the audience) watch on her tablet, Jo-Ann’s appearance on talks shows come with a kind of sordid canned laughter, as audience members engage in schadenfreude, giggling at her intoxicated state. Moretz tries to give the character an icy sense of humor, but there is very little else to Jo-Ann besides what is on the page.
Clouds of Sils Maria never comes close to the lofty heights of titles like All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard or Persona – all films that were more original, pointed and daring – and Assayas’ commentary about the addictive nature of celebrity and tabloid culture is hardly revelatory. The director’s 1996 comedy-drama Irma Vep, about a Chinese actor’s dizzying experience re-making a French film, was wittier while remaining just as self-reflexive. Clouds of Sils Maria desperately wants to be postmodern, but it is not smart or sly enough to do more with the material than continually reiterate the themes.
Even with excellent performances, Clouds of Sils Maria is overlong and obvious, reiterating tired points about acting, aging and identity without moving anywhere new thematically.