Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014)

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The latest from French director Olivier Assayas finally makes its way to Seattle screens this week, opening at Landmark’s Seven Gables Theatre. It stars Juliette Binoche as a very Binochian actress, highly accomplished in both the commercial and artier realms of her trade, as she reluctantly takes on a role in a play by the writer who gave her her big break at age 18. The play is about the toxic relationship between an older businesswoman and her ambitious young intern, and Binoche, having played the young half 20 years earlier, is now asked to take on the older part, a character whose weakness she despises. Kristen Stewart plays Binoche’s assistant, young and plugged into the world, who encourages Binoche to see the play and its characters in a new light. The bulk of the film follows their discussions as they practice lines in the picturesque Swiss Alps, and their relationship draws some expected parallels and unexpected divergences from the play itself.

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It’s that unexpectedness that most defines Clouds of Sils Maria. It is perhaps Assayas’s most slippery film, defying categorization or easy summary. It reminds one of Ingmar Bergman, Persona most obviously, or perhaps something of the late films of Alain Resnais (certainly his You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet would appear to exist amicably in the same universe), but just when you have it figured out, it drifts into something else entirely. This distinguishes it from his most famous foray into the world of international acting, 1996’s Irma Vep, with Maggie Cheung, a more direct satire of the business (Along with Clouds, we’ll be discussing another Maggie Cheung film about acting, 1992’s Centre Stage, on this week’s episode of The George Sanders Show). Clouds is a movie that refuses to be any one thing, determined to be an object that changes shape every time you look at it (as Stewart states of the play at one point, one of many lines of dialogue that might, or might not, be The Point of the movie we’re watching).

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Clouds is most enjoyable during a mid-film sojourn to the city wherein Binoche and Stewart catch the X-Men/Avengers-esque blockbuster that Binoche’s co-star in the play, Chloë Grace Moretz, is starring in. The movie itself is a joy (oh how I wish we lived in a universe where Olivier Assayas made Marvel movies), bundles of exposition and superficial psychologizing that Binoche later skewers, only to have Stewart point out that it really isn’t all that different in style or insight from the oh-so-serious high drama they’re preparing to perform. You know, except for the spaceship. Binoche’s pretentious condescension here is hilarious (one is reminded that she is the same actress who, following her Best Supporting Oscar win, told Steven Spielberg she would be in his Jurassic Park sequel, but only if she could play a dinosaur), but it’s Stewart who gives the film’s finest performance. Grounded, lucid and intense while Binoche is all hyper-ventilating self-absorbtion, Stewart is the film’s only connection to reality, the only thing that holds the world back from evaporation.

Clouds of Sils Maria starts Friday, May 1 at the Landmark Seven Gables Theatre.

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