Originally published Apr. 27th, 2017 on thedistantcloseup.com
Movies about movies and Hollywood, in general, are such a ubiquitous item of pleasure or annoyance, depending on which side of the spectrum you fall, that it becomes progressively less fun each time the Academy throws as many trophies as possible at them. Only recently, and accidentally, has it become a little more fun than usual. Films about the stage don’t seem as high in demand, however, coming around once in a blue moon and often attracting just as much attention, usually for the best of reasons, though.
Starring Juliette Bincohe, Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace-Moretz, Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria features an actress (Binoche) on the downslope of her career, who accepts a role in a revival of the play that saw her soar to international stardom, this time opposite a volatile newcomer (Grace-Moretz) playing her former role. Unsuspectedly, her daily sessions of running lines with her assistant (Stewart) takes a toll on their personal and professional relationship.
Like many of the French New Wave contemporaries that came decades before him, Assayas is both a filmmaker and film critic, and with Clouds of Sils Maria, the latter occupation greatly influences his approach to the material as the former – perhaps not too shocking for someone who has written for Cahiers du cinéma and is greatly influenced by Robert Bresson. The film’s psychological under- and overtones inform its headiness, as Assayas tackles a number of issues that require more unpacking than a simple review. Unfortunately, time and duty compels me to have something prepared addressing many of its surface level quandaries, but this is definitely a work to be studied at a later date.
Most notably, Clouds of Sils Maria is Assayas commenting on how we view theatrical productions, giving us an assortment of visual cues more obvious – the frame often fading to black to suddenly end a scene, mimicking how many scenes transition on the stage – and more understated – the scene of Binoche, Stewart, Grace-Moretz and Johnny Flynn meeting resembling the primary types of theater (proscenium, thrust, etc.). For instance, scenes are frequently cut off in the middle, though still have a distinctive resolution that pushes the plot forward.
Of course, this occurs in cinema, as well, but often times, film doesn’t ask us to see this transition as logical as we’ve already made the connection by the time the next scene reaches a contextual similarity with the one previous. With theater being a predominantly live experience as opposed to cinema, since the modern innovations of home entertainment have changed how we view films, it forces us to accept that what follows will share some connection with what happened moments before, and viewing Assayas’s film evokes a distinctly comparable feeling.
In addition to this commentary, Assayas’s simultaneous narrative and meta-narrative philosophizes on the mortality of life, youth and careers, the predatory nature of entertainment industries brought about by systemic displays of ageism and/or sexism, generational variations in artistic interpretation and the endless cycle of acting, whether it be professional or simple flattery. But, to piggyback off of previous points made, how Assayas uses his screenplay’s meta-narrative to think of the connections between the screen and the stage is most captivating.
Considering much of Clouds is Binoche and Stewart running lines together, the film’s official trailer self-reflexively twists selections from these scenes to both make the film look like a more broadly appealing melodrama and transparently address the idea that play bears many parallels to the pair’s relationship. The comparisons are undoubtedly apparent, but it’s not a perfect match. It’s as if Assayas is critiquing, even somewhat mocking how we long to create metaphors about the relationship between what we’re seeing represented on screen and the works of various artistic mediums a given flick constitutes as consequential to understanding the plot and its characters.
In short, Assayas’s script is rich with intellectual content that keeps us engaged with its blistering, slightly acerbic narrative rife with melancholy. Just how tightly wound its story is testament to his ability to make an assortment of themes interconnect and compact enough to heighten its pace, rather than drag it out. It’s additionally elevated by two perfectly matched leads arguably giving the performances of their careers. Though Binoche’s Maria Enders and Stewart’s Valentine represent a stark philosophical gap widened by the hands of time and age, what makes them so enthralling isn’t their equally passionate disposition, but rather how they imbue their respective protagonists with a depressingly naturalistic inability to see the value in the other’s perspective.
Assayas’s film is a masterclass in humbly crafting an academic undercurrent about two correlated mediums without stooping to technical and aesthetic pretension, though honestly, it would be fascinating to read Clouds of Sils Maria in conjunction with Birdman due to their coming out around the same time and their similarly caustic takes on art and the personalities inhabiting it. If you’re looking for something chewier, Clouds is the way to go, as well. Few dramatic excursions are as lovely, and you get to see some stunning sights in the process. It’s a win-win, folks.