Lushly drawn and slyly moving, Clouds of Sils Maria is the latest exceptional film by the great Olivier Assayas. Juliette Binoche stars as Maria Enders, a successful actress who is best known for her work in a play two decades prior. The play was called The Maloja Snake and Maria portrayed Sigrid, the tempestuous new girl at an office who developed a complex relationship with the older Helena. Now a revival is planned and a young director thinks it would be a stirring idea to have Maria switch over to the Helena role, a suggestion that annoys and intrigues her.
By Maria’s side is her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart). Maria bounces her ideas and ramblings off Valentine, who listens and sympathizes. It’s a compelling bond that reveals fascinating levels the deeper into the film we get.
Clouds of Sils Maria is light on narrative. Other than this basic set-up, all there is to the plot is Maria’s accepting the new staging of The Maloja Snake. We watch her run-lines with Valentine, debate her status as a quality actress and meet the new Sigrid, a wildcard, Lohan-esque character played by Chloe Grace Moretz. What we get is a superbly told character study with one of the world’s finest acting talents at the center of it.
Binoche, as would be expected, knocks it out of the park. She makes Maria’s insecurities about returning to The Maloja Snake a complicated affair. As she ponders what it says about being an aging actress, her career and personal life, Binoche turns each feeling into a potent struggle. We watch as she frets over the way the media manipulates an artist’s persona, even as Maria giggles over Youtube clips showing Moretz’s character getting into tiffs with the paparazzi. Binoche’s reactions always feel spontaneous, if consistent with the internal makeup of Maria.
The performance goes alongside the further blossoming of Stewart, who has been on a real roll of late. Where last year’s Camp X-Ray showed an – intentional – uncomfortable toughness and Still Alice displayed timidity, Clouds of Sils Maria allows for these to come together. Stewart’s Valentine has to be blunt on behalf of Maria, even as she might find her actions occasionally bewildering. However, that connection between a boss and assistant, practically joined-at-the-hip, is a difficult one. They are friendly, but not friends innately. Maria wants Valentine’s opinion, just not when it might be a contradictory one. At a moment of seeming quietude and openness, Valentine points out how Sigrid will be played by her favorite actress. Maria is taken aback. Wasn’t she herself Valentine’s favorite?
As the movie progresses, Assayas unravels their status further. There’s far more than we initially see and the rawness of it all is spectacularly arranged. This is a compassionate, wry and intelligent picture; no surprise considering the director. Undoubtedly, this will go down as one of 2015’s best.
Clouds of Sils Maria opens in Seattle this weekend.