Olivier Assayas’s work is often uneven. He has directed some brilliant films (1994’s Cold Water, 2000’s Les Destinées, and Demonlover in 2002), some that are a mixed lot (such as his best-known, 1996’s Irma Vep), and a few absolute duds (2007’s Boarding Gate, for example). And then there is Carlos – the less we speak of Carlos, the better, but suffice to say that any film that spends a third of its six hour running time with a protagonist hiding out and complaining of varicose testes… One tendency in Assayas work that some perhaps find alienating or off-putting is his foregrounding of the problems of the glamorous, powerful, and well-to-do in a fairly non-ironic way. Irma Vep was about a director losing his way directing a famous actress, Demonlover concerned power plays by sexy movers and shakers within international corporations, and Carlos was Assayas at his international jet-setting worst, a work that signified “cool” at every juncture while being deeply boring, self-satisfied and self-indulgent.
Given that his best films tend to hew away from the surface sheen of money, fame, power, and what we could generally term the “eye-candy” of international capital, I was a bit hesitant on the approach to Clouds of Sils Maria. (The rush to judgement in certain online forums, where users were vehement about wishing the early demise of such “annoying” characters, didn’t help my hopefulness). The film concerns an older actress, played by Juliette Binoche, and her hesitation to take on a role in a play about power dynamics between two women, one older and one younger, where the younger seduces and destroys the older. She originally played the younger role, to much acclaim, twenty years prior, and now is offered the role of the older (to be destroyed) woman, against a current Hollywood ingenue (played by Chloe Grace Moretz). Along for the ride as a helper and confidant is her personal assistant, played by Kristen Stewart.
The film becomes a kind of mental triangle among the women, with Binoche and Stewart mostly bonding, sometimes sparring, as Stewart helps convince Binoche to take the role and coaches her through dialogue preparation. A subtle transference begins to occur, and the dynamics of the play (titled Maloja Snake, after the rarely seen movement of clouds through a mountain valley) start influencing the women’s relationship. Binoche struggles with the meaning and personal ramifications of playing an older, “debased” role (when she is still somewhat resting on her laurels from her younger performance), while Moretz shape-shifts and personifies the “emptiness of today’s youth” that every older generation feels in some measure about its younger competition. Kristen Stewart is stuck in the middle, not only as the go-between for Binoche and the world, but as a woman who can see what getting older has in store for her, and is sympathetic to the prospect and compassionate in her analysis, but who also isn’t there yet and doesn’t want to be.
If this sounds like problems for the elite, well, on one level it certainly is. At the same time, I did not find the characters annoying or their problems uninteresting, as the writing is exceptionally good and the layers manifold. The film deals with multiple issues very subtly: the difference between “performance” and “authentic” self, the nature of acting and popularity, how women relate to each other, all of which is filtered through the larger dynamic of aging and what it means to get older and to feel you are still in step (or not) with your time. It is a drama without pyrotechnics, but it lingers, and the performances are incredibly strong – particularly Kristen Stewart, who I didn’t expect much from but who knocked me out. The film is up there with Bergman’s reflections on the performing life, but Assayas brings an appreciation and critique of both the ridiculousness and the wonderfulness of the post-modern capitalist phantasmagoria. And in terms of a film that tries to observe, and not polemicize, what it means to be a woman and an image, and that seriously considers how women are or are not allowed to age and still remain socially relevant, this is the finest recent film I can think of. For Assayas fans, it’s his strongest film since Demonlover, and worth returning to.