Despite the fact that French director Olivier Assayas has made two of my favorite contemporary movies — Irma Vep (1996) and Demonlover (2002) — I haven’t gotten very deep into his filmography. The only other of his films I’ve seen are Boarding Gate (2007) and Summer Hours (2008). Considering my viewing habits, it’s unsurprising that the first three of those are genre flirtations, while Summer Hours is more of an arty family drama and not a film that made much of an impression on me. Clouds of Sils Maria shares some of Irma Vep‘s global, metacinematic quality, but in the end it felt a lot more like the tastefully airless Summer Hours.
I really liked the first hour of Clouds of Sils Maria, which gives us a complex, elliptical introduction to the actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) and her personal assistant, Val (Kristen Stewart), who are traveling to Zurich for an awards ceremony for Maria’s old playwright-mentor, Wilhelm Melchior, when it’s announced that Wilhelm has died suddenly. We are immersed in Maria’s life, both professional and personal, and her history as well, and I loved how the information was fed to us in little bursts of different kinds of communication and the way that Assayas would often cut away on unusual beats, creating an interesting feeling of reticence and mystery and things unexpressed. There’s a bustling, bristling feeling, as we follow these characters hurtling toward a mournful future in their sleek train, while wrestling with thorny feelings about friends, lovers, spouses, and colleagues.
The second half of the film is more focused on Maria and Val and on Maria’s preparation to take the older woman’s role in Melchior’s play, The Maloja Snake, that she made her name on twenty years before playing the younger woman’s role. Maria’s insecurities about herself and fears that her star is falling come to the fore, and perhaps this dwelling on unhappy feelings is why I didn’t like the second half as much. But part of the problem, I think, is that there’s a fair bit of sparring between Maria and Val, and it suffers from the fact that Val is a cypher. Who is she? How did she get the job as Maria’s personal assistant? What are her own aspirations? Val is a cypher, so her arguments with Maria about interpretations of the play’s characters or about whether superhero movies have a serious point to make feel abstract. She represents Youth, but Maria is not Maturity. She’s a specific character with lots of interesting rough edges. I liked aspects of this second half, but it was ultimately frustrating.
Then there’s an epilogue that felt completely off-track to me. If there’s a focus, it’s shifted to Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Moretz), who plays the actress playing the younger role in the The Maloja Snake. She’s the hot young star hounded by personal problems and paparazzi, and somehow, despite the fact that she’s a more fully-fleshed in terms of her background and aspirations, she’s even less of a character than Val. I don’t know. The epilogue just really felt banal to me.
I guess in the end I didn’t know what this one was about. Time, aging, memory, stardom, fame, scandal, insecurity, art, populism, industry. It touches on a lot of interesting subjects, and it comes at them from some interesting angles. I actually did like it better than Summer Hours, which never engaged me at all, despite some great acting and a beautiful setting. The setting of this one in the Swiss Alps is also very beautiful in a classical way, often looking very painterly. At times it has an interesting post-modern collage feel, as we get bits of silent film spliced in and bits of the play as well, both rehearsed and performed. Sometimes the play about the unhappy relationship between an older woman and a younger woman seems to be commenting on Maria and Val as they rehearse the play, which gives the film a meta quality that felt very heady. Maybe my reaction against the second half is in fact reactionary. The wounding arguments between Val and Maria are melodramatic, and I can still have a knee-jerk response to melodrama. Maybe a feeling of dissatisfaction is what the film is all about. Maria Enders is a middle-aged actress who is being inexorably superseded by a flashy young idiot. Val is the young nobody being treated as a punching bag by the unhappy older woman. They are both trapped in roles they hate.
The title of the film refers to a cloud phenomena in that region of Switzerland. The river of cloud that sometimes pours through the valley is also known as the Maloja Snake. Maria and Val fail to see it, because they are so busy feeling unhappy with each other. Maybe that’s the simple point of this complex movie. They’ve seen it mediated through film, but when they have the chance to see it with their own eyes, they’re consumed by their grievances instead.