Writer-director Olivier Assayas and actress Juliette Binoche first worked together in the 1985 film “Rendez-vous”, which he co-wrote and which made her a star. Then in 2008, Binoche appeared in Assayas’ “Summer Hours”, after which she asked him to write something for her to star in. “Clouds of Sils Maria” is what he came up with, and it is intelligent and brilliant.
Binoche plays Maria Enders, a famous film and stage actress who is persuaded to appear in a revival of the stage play which made her a star many years earlier, when she was only eighteen. In the play she’d played the role of a ruthless young girl who seduces, then destroys, and finally drives to suicide, an older woman for whom she worked; but for the revival she is to take on the role of the older woman, while her former part as the sexually manipulative young ingénue will go to a tabloid-notorious brat- starlet .
This device brought to mind the real life events of Michael Caine, who appeared in the original two-hander “Sleuth” in 1972 opposite Laurence Olivier, and again in the 2007 remake with Jude Law, this time playing the role originally played by Olivier. Not such a great remake, but I digress.
In “Clouds”, Kristen Stewart plays the role of Enders’ young devoted assistant Valentine who accompanies her boss as she crosses the Alps on a train heading to Zurich where Enders is going to accept a prize on behalf of Wilhelm Melchior, who’d written and directed the play which had launched her career. While Stewart has made her name, and fortune, playing Bella Swan in the “Twilight” vampire saga, she has been a working actor since her early years, helped by her Australian script director mother, Jules Stewart, and she gives a flawless performance here alongside the magnificent Binoche.
The body of the film, which is divided into three sections, takes place in the section set at the home of the recently deceased Melchior, where Maria and Valentine begin to work on the script reading, with Valentine standing in for the character once played by Maria. The onion of the movie is slowly peeled here, and many issues are explored while we are continuously shuffled up and down the different layers of the portrayals. We are watching two real women, Binoche and Stewart who speak the lines Assayas has written, playing Maria and Val who speak Assayas’ lines, but also Melchior’s lines when Maria and Val are playing the characters in his play.
This graceful sleight of hand, like a directorial three-card trick, is at times charming, at others ominous, but always powerful and revealing. It confuses the six women in play, and so it confuses the viewer, but this complexity actually illuminates rather than dims the experience. Which woman, on which layer, is seducing the other, manipulating the other, being driven by the other? From beginning to end, there are insights, clues and revelations that slip and slide over each other as the themes are developed, rested and resumed. There is a perfectly logical though unpredictable resolution to the story which I hope you will discover for yourself.
As for the breathtaking cinematography, Melchior’s home is located in the majestic Engadin, the long deep valley in the Swiss Alps, and the site for the cloud phenomenon known as the “Maloja Snake”, which was the name Melchior gave to the play now being rehearsed for its reprise. This amazing phenomenon was first filmed in 1924, and Melchior often watched the film while he worked on his play.
You can see it here : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQMT5v0yk9o
It is not without faults, but they are minor, and perhaps made more notable by the quality of the film as a whole. I note three.
The least important is the music chosen to accompany the sight of the Maloja Snake we are never quite sure we are going to get to see. Perhaps it is a peculiarly Australian thing, but for many decades Pachelbel’s Canon has been to go-to wedding music resorted to by wide-eyed brides and lazy wedding planners. Its jaded familiarity jarred the way Kubrick’s use of the Blue Danube didn’t, because Stanley was highlighting the gulf between the old and he new. Pachelbel’s Canon is a fine piece of music, which I first heard on Karl Haas’s Adventures in Good Music programme, and which I enjoyed until the fifth wedding I heard it at. The same thing happened with Ravel’s Bolero. First heard as a boy, it conjured up fantastic visions of desert caravans in the Sahara, and later, after hearing it accompanying Albie Thoms’ continuous tracking shot of his 1967 “Bolero” for Ubu Films, ending with the crescendo of the close-up eye-blink, it inspired long hasheesh dreams of blissful eternities, until Blake Edwards crudely pimped it for his Bo Derek indulgence. But I digress.
More puzzling are two sequences which made me think the director and editor weren’t around that day. One sequence is stylistically foreign to all the rest, with superimposition of footage complete with loud dissonant music while Val is careening dangerously on the mountain roads in the rain as if on some acid trip; and a scene where Enders checks out some Youtube clips on her tablet which seem amateurishly fake in the way they are put to screen.
I enjoyed and was thrilled by every aspect of “Clouds of Sils Maria” as much, if not more, than “Birdman”, with which there are some distinct conceptual parallels. And my appreciation of Juliette Binoche continues to soar. I fantasise about sending her a script myself.