The Expected Virtue Of Intelligence: Olivier Assayas’ Clouds Of Sils Maria (2014) – DVD review
Assayas creates a cinematic crucible in which to test the state of modern acting; Binoche and Stewart pass with electrifying results.
Clouds Of Sils Maria
(Olivier Assayas, 2014)
Actors, eh? It’s all one long process of gossip avoidance, public engagements, fighting the ghosts of the past and trying, somehow, to find time to rehearse the next project. And then, in Juliette Binoche’s case, Olivier Assayas makes you do the whole bloody thing again in the film itself!
Clouds Of Sils Maria is a film that hovers somewhere in the space implied by its title, still within sight of being grounded but with the possibility of getting carried skywards should the wind change direction. It’s the border between reality and fantasy, age and youth, Hollywood and Europe – all crossings that Binoche has made during her illustrious career, which itself lends events yet another schism, that between autobiography and fiction.
The plot is straightforward – should Binoche’s alter-ego, Maria, accept the role of the older woman in a play she once made famous when cast as her character’s younger lover? – but it is layered in self-reflexive puzzles. The author has just died, at the precise moment she’s en route to accept an award on his behalf. Her likely co-star (played by Chloe Grace Moretz) has just headlined a ridiculous space opera. Meanwhile, Maria’s line-readings with assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) turn into a life-imitating-art collision between the perspectives of carefree youth and circumspect maturity.
Sometimes, all of this too much: an intellectual feast that threatens to become a blow-out amidst all of its tangled discourse. Certainly, it is a very dialectical film, unafraid to verbalise its themes to see which way they’ll blow. But it’s all credit to Assayas and his cast that the result isn’t bogged down by trite conclusions but batted back-and-forth with visible relish, particularly by the stars.
The part of Maria was written for Binoche by long-term collaborator Assayas and it shows; shards of her real-life career puncture the mythmaking to give a real-world frisson to the All About Eve-esque study of an ageing actress’ limited options. Binoche carries herself not with Bette Davis’ hauteur but a mixture of sardonic wit (her laughter is a thing of joy) and chastened fragility.
But the real stand-out is Stewart; unlike the other leads she is cast-against-type, the fly in the film’s ointment. Valentine is efficient, erudite and yet still full of the vitality that Maria fears lost – and Stewart is naturalism itself, a far cry from her diffident, awkward presence in other films. The mid-section of Clouds Of Sils Maria sees the central duo bantering or arguing across the various thematic battlegrounds, and Stewart more than holds her own against one of cinema’s greats. This could be career-changing, provided Stewart can find roles as grown-up as this one; perhaps she should follow the example of Brady Corbet, whose cameo here further underlines his status as European cinema’s America actor of choice.
Assayas follows them with his loose-limbed, generous direction, an unmoored Widescreen camera that lets the actors dictate the composition (and producing one brilliantly subtle running gag whereby Binoche wanders off whenever she speaks in French, so as not to offend the ears of those who don’t like foreign language cinema). Only in an alarming, car-sick interlude ( Primal Scream’s Kowalski, multiple exposures) does Assayas remind us that ‘realism’ is only a mindset, foreshadowing the film’s enigmatic ending.
In many ways, this is a European take on Birdman‘s hallucinatory look at acting, but it is altogether more ambiguous and unresolved. Most interesting is the gradual realisation that the fabled play being rehearsed might be as rickety and ‘phony’ as Moretz’s movie-within-a-movie, which itself is defended (however ironically) as holding its own truth. We are clearly in the age of the post-superhero movie, where auteurs fret about the supposedly parlous state of cinema, but Assayas’ teasing, wry chamber piece poses a more measured response than Inarittu’s trite, declamatory manifesto.