Much of Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria exists in an obscure haze, a strange space pitched somewhere between paranoid and wistful. It’s an effective representation of the place in life at which Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) finds herself when she’s asked to reprise her performance in the play Maloja Snake. The difference is that when Maria was younger, she played the role of the young ingénue seduced by an older woman. Now, she’s being asked to play the seductress, who ultimately meets her ruin at the hands of the young woman she covets and then obsesses over. For an actress in the modern entertainment industry, Maria is savvy enough to see the publicity value of inverting her star-making turn, but she’s also a woman struggling with the oncoming loss of the youth that was once hers to use for her own art.
Clouds of Sils Maria works through a number of different meditations on mortality and its mutually fraught relationships with art. Given this, its pleasures are largely dependent on one’s willingness to follow Assayas through his disparate, constantly fluctuating modes. It’s an acquired taste, to say the least. Much like the natural phenomenon with which the film’s fictional play shares its name, the film is shrouded in mysteries and paths that often lead only to further speculation. The film lingers at quiet, often protracted, sometimes inexplicably connected moments of process in all its forms. In addition to the obvious one, the process actors go through to play a particularly difficult role, Clouds of Sils Maria is also about the processes of aging, of forming relationships and demolishing them, of embracing a new phase in life or desperately attempting to stave it off.
It’s also about projection, as much as anything. The film’s numerous long-take rehearsal sessions cast Maria’s assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart, nuanced and affecting) in the young woman’s role, as the duo freely maneuvers in and out of the text, their dynamic becoming increasingly muddled with the play’s story of the arrogance of age being undone by the endless cunning of youth. Binoche and Stewart work their way through lengthy exchanges of dialogue in rehearsal, all of it with opposing dynamics emerging throughout: dominance against submission, old against young, cynicism against optimism, intellect against passion.
The meaning comes in theme, tone, and small gestures, and Assayas doesn’t always seek out the through-lines, to such a point where the film either seduces with its thematic density or bores with its endless intellectualizations and rational detachment from even the most painful topics. There isn’t a lot of room for middle ground. It’s a strange thing, seeing two performances of such vulnerability and raw emotion in service of a film that often races through its most dramatic moments in favor of ever more discussion and contemplation. The film obliquely examines the simmering tensions between many of its characters, but does little with those; it comments on the vapidity of modern popular culture, but leaves Chloe Grace Moretz to play Binoche’s modern-day counterpart in a role that’s disappointingly one-note just to get its own argument across; it works its way to emotional peaks and abruptly fades away or cuts out. Clouds of Sils Maria invites those willing to wander through the minutiae of the obsessive celebrity artist, and that may well be a barrier to entry for those who might land outside that classification.