Life Imitates Art Imitating Life in Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria

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Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria.

The French writer-director Olivier Assayas has a genius for using ephemeral, gossip-magazine ingredients — wealth, fashion, celebrity — as a springboard for that most timeless of themes: the ephemerality of us. An aging international movie star is the center of his latest triumph, Clouds of Sils Maria, a high-flown title for a film of countless earthly pleasures, chief among them the faces of three very different but fascinating actresses: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloë Grace Moretz. If the juxtaposition of “fascinating” and “Kristen Stewart” stopped you cold, this is the film that should, by rights, warm you up to her. KStew seems unusually comfortable onscreen — ironically by plumbing her own discomfort, using her squirmy, twisty-mouthed, almost fatally thoughtful (for an actress) presence to generate an amazing amount of sympathy. Her American candor turns out to be the perfect foil for Binoche’s lyrical French elusiveness.

Stewart plays Valentine (pronounced Valenteen), the personal assistant to Binoche’s Maria Enders, and a big source of the movie’s delight is watching an ultrapoised Stewart (behind a huge pair of glasses) gulp coffee, juggle phone calls, schedule appointments, and run interference when the paparazzi turn up while we envision Stewart’s own personal assistant doing the exact same thing at the exact same instant. We’re in on the joke when she tosses off a synopsis of a dumb script (“There are werewolves involved for whatever reason”), quotes TMZ on a self-destructive young starlet, and adds, with a shrug, “Celebrity news — it’s fun.” She praises that same starlet — Moretz’s Jo-Ann Ellis — for being “not completely ­antiseptic like the rest of Hollywood … brave enough to be herself.” Aye, the meta is strong in this one!

So is the scenery. Most of the movie takes place in and around the actress’s rented cottage in Sils Maria, a village in the breathtaking Swiss municipality of Sils im Engadin, where Maria and Valentine hike, swim, and run lines for and argue over a play that Maria is poised to start rehearsing.

The next two paragraphs are convoluted but important, so go slow. The play is called Maloja Snake, named for a line of clouds that sometimes slithers around the mountains and along the rivers near Sils Maria. Twenty years earlier, the play and its subsequent film adaptation made Maria a star in the role of Sigrid, a nervy, unbeholden beauty who becomes the personal assistant and lover of her 40-ish employer, Helena, and whose abandonment of her drives the older woman to suicide. Art imitated life, insofar as Maria’s famed “modernity” eclipsed the “conventional style” of the past-her-prime actress playing Helena, who perished a short time later under sad circumstances. Now, on the heels of the death of the elderly playwright, a hotshot stage director (Lars Eidinger) implores Maria to appear in a revival of Maloja Snake, except this time as Helena opposite the Sigrid of the blistering 19-year-old super­star Jo-Ann Ellis.

Shades of All About Eve. Existentially speaking, maybe worse. Maria wavers, balks, denies such a thing is even possible. She is, she insists, forever Sigrid, modern and strong and free to make her own rules. She could never be the weak, trapped, inelastic Helena. But Valentine, romantic to the core, argues that the character of Helena is Sigrid, older now, unused to being turned down, shattered by the sudden realization of her powerlessness. Valentine — who’s probably too blunt to make it as an actor’s personal assistant — goes on to effuse over young Jo-Ann’s courage to be emotionally defenseless, to eliminate all distance between the actress and the role, and implies that Maria has had her edges sanded away by time. In one sense, she’s demonstrably correct: Maria is in the midst of a divorce that doesn’t seem to have affected her one way or another. Years of love affairs, variable movies, and acting against green screens in comic-book blockbusters have left her cynical. Valentine argues that if Maria plays Helena as an older Sigrid, she’ll recover her innocence.

I used the word convoluted above to characterize my own synopsis, not the film itself, which plays like a dream. Assayas’s pace is easy, his structure linear: no tricky flashbacks, no jagged cuts. There’s so little in the way of histrionics that it’s hard to put one’s finger on why the film is so terrifically intense — except that each actress is, in her own peculiar way, preternaturally high-strung, able to convey momentous emotional stakes without raising her voice above the pitch of conversation.

Big stars live for scripts like this. It’s the ne plus ultra of actor bait, blurring the line between character and public persona in a way that makes acting seem like the highest form of enlightenment. Binoche, Stewart, and Moretz can disappear into their roles and at the same time stand outside them — a Buddhist ideal. When Maria and Valentine run lines, we often don’t know if it’s the play or if Maria and Valentine are enacting their own drama of youth pounding on the door of age. (It’s both, of course.) And what of that next, meta level? Here is Binoche, the great, Oscar-winning actress, who at 51 is exactly twice the age of her presumably vastly richer and definitely more famous co-star and must be aware that Stewart is by far the bigger get for the papps. Here is KStew, ridiculed by hipsters for her sullenness and savaged by Twi-hards for allegedly breaking dear Robert’s heart, her billion-dollar “franchise” behind her and obviously aware that her barely legal younger co-star is blossoming into the next “It” girl. Moretz arrives late in the film and upstages everyone. Her face has more graphic punch than her co-stars’ — her cheekbones are wider, her eyes bigger. Her Jo-Ann is just coming into her sexuality but traces of baby fat linger, a peak moment for an actress in this culture — and Jo-Ann is feeling her power. When she first meets Maria at a restaurant, she barely acknowledges Valentine’s presence, and for the length of the scene Assayas’s camera pretty much stays off Stewart. Of course it’s just playacting, but this movie hits so close to the bone it must have hurt a little. That’s what I want to believe, anyway.

In a few places you see Assayas trying too hard. One of Valentine’s dreamy paeans to youthful risk is too on the nose. A late scene in which Jo-Ann shows a remarkable lack of empathy for Maria needed another beat — it’s too All About Eve too fast. The last scene, which features a young film director, is way too tidy. But Binoche pulls it off, as she pulls everything off. Her Maria is in denial for much of the movie, but then, with such subtlety you can’t see it happening, Binoche transforms, becoming more self-possessed, less time’s victim than a faintly amused bystander feeling the first stirrings of something beyond the material world. In Clouds of Sils Maria, Binoche gives a master class in film acting. It’s not, as Valentine maintains, taking prodigious emotional risks and merging blindly with one’s character. It’s having the grace to hold something back, to suggest one’s body — however beautiful — is a bad bet if you want to play the long game.

*This article appears in the April 6, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.