Adding a new and exciting chapter to the book on filmmakers’ fascination with the apposition between finished object (film) and an ongoing process (theatre), French director Olivier Assayas returns to screens after Après mai with The Clouds of Sils Maria. Binoche plays Maria, a famous but now middle-aged actress. Visiting the legendary Swiss resort Sils Maria, she’s persuaded to take on the part of an older woman in the production of a play in which she starred, playing the younger, more aggressive role, some two decades ago. Reading lines with her PA Valentine (a cool, subtle Stewart), she finds herself exploring more than a role. Another set of meetings with her young nemesis, a highly visible young actress (Moretz) shows Maria struggling with an outdated ethic in the context of new social media—a sideline excursion into Assayas’ interest in Debord’s theories on life as spectacle.
The film is immensely, rewardingly complex: scenes showing Valentine and Maria running lines practically blend reality, theatre and film—before fading theatrically to curtained black. Binoche plays both herself and her role as Maria—who, in turn, is developing a stage character whose lesbian relationship with a younger woman brims back into her encounters with Val. Playing to an intimated audience, the dialogues are naturalist but self-consciously so, and their cumulative effect indeed suggests growing self-awareness in the Brechtian sense. But whilst investigating this explicitly theatrical process Assayas also exploits the filmic possibilities such as fluid editing and matching location to plot: in this case the symbolically ephemeral cloud formation of the Maloja Snake (also the name of the play-within-the-film) that occasionally meanders into the local valley to underscore the question of what is real and what is not—and how the (dramatic) arts can shape perceptions of it. Questions to which Assayas provides some very evocatively ambivalent answers.
The Clouds of Sils Maria | Directed by Olivier Assayas (France, Switzerland, Germany 2014) with Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart. Starts December 18
Originally published in issue #133, December 2014.