An acclaimed middle-aged actress at the height of her powers. An eager young up-and-comer, full of praise for her inspirational elder. Sound like All About Eve? Yes—and emphatically no. That’s part of the appeal of the 2014 French-German-Swiss co-production, Clouds of Sils Maria, that is just now appearing on American screens. This Olivier Assayas film, much admired at Cannes and elsewhere, does a marvelous job of foiling our expectations.
At the heart of Cloud of Sils Maria is the luminous Juliette Binoche, now at the mid-century mark but still ravishingly beautiful. As Maria Enders, she’s a revered icon of stage and screen, much sought after for glamour shoots, personal appearances, and prestigious new roles. She’s also negotiating a divorce, grieving the loss of an early mentor, and trying to decide what kind of future she wants. The big issue facing her is whether to accept a part in a revival of something called Maloja Snake. Years before, as an unknown, she’d shot to stardom in the same play. She had then played Sigrid, a mysterious and powerful young woman who set her sights on her straitlaced employer, Helena. Now she’s being asked to take on the role of Helena, whose passionate capitulation to Sigrid ends up destroying her life.
Partly this film is exploring what it means to be an actor. Maria—sensitive and riddled with insecurity—is a genius at camouflaging her emotions when she meets the press, the public, or virtually anyone beyond her ever-present personal assistant. She’s a thoroughly likable creature: she has a wonderfully hearty laugh, and her moments of private fun (like a giggle-fit over a corny sci-fi epic and a spontaneous skinny-dip in a mountain lake) are certainly contagious. Never does she take herself and her fame wholly seriously: clearly, it’s hard work keeping up that facade. By the same token, she makes us see that to be an actor is necessarily to be self-absorbed. She will never look very far beyond herself, and perhaps that’s why she has been so successful in her career path. But is her private life a success? That’s another question.
The striking young actress who will take on the role that once made Maria famous is played by Chloë Grace Moretz. Remarkably, Moretz (born in 1997) is still a teenager, but one who’s taken on her share of mature, gutsy roles (though she also convincingly played an adorable French gamine in Scorsese’s Hugo). In Clouds of Sils Maria, portraying a youthful actress known as much for her transgressive behavior as her talent, she is a brash and fascinating presence. But Maria’s real opposite number within the world of this film is her assistant, played by Kristen Stewart. Stewart’s impact on The Clouds of Sils Maria is such that she was recently given France’s César award for best supporting actress, the first American woman to be so honored. The film’s very first shots are of this earnest young woman, with her huge round glasses and ugly tattoos, dextrously putting out fires for her boss. Devoted and smart, she seems to have no personal ambition beyond serving as Maria’s factotum, sometimes advisor, and confidante What small hints we have of a personal life are not encouraging. But finally she remains a mystery. And this mystery is magnified by something that happens late in the film. I won’t spoil it, but it raised questions I am still trying to unravel.
This then, is not a movie that ends when the lights come on. As one who loves movies about complicated people, I’m happy to give it my thumbs-up.