Clouds of Sils Maria

Review © Jane Freebury

Fading stars facing tough new realities is a subject that has been worked to brilliant effect on screen. It received definitive, hysterical treatment in black-and-white in Sunset Boulevard and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Ingmar Bergman also touched on the subject in his startling, minimalist masterpiece about a former actress, Persona. There is, however, always more to say.

The French screenwriter-director Olivier Assayas has certainly found more mileage in it in this lithe and supple study of a mature actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) in a quandary about a part she has been asked to play. In a revival of the play that launched her career twenty years ago as an alluring young woman who disarms and destroys the older woman who is her boss, Enders has been asked to play the older woman this time round. Oh, how quickly the tables turn on screen.

The ageless Binoche, still looking superb at 50, plays opposite Kristen Stewart, already a big star because of the Twilight series, if not a fully credentialed actress. The young American has already surely made her fortune, but we are now seeing more of the range already glimpsed in On the Road.

In Clouds of Sils Maria, Stewart is Maria’s personal assistant, Valentine. A cool and confident operator, managing the affairs of a star in demand smoothly, and lending a wolf whistle to the applause when Maria wows an audience in a plunging Chanel gown.

It becomes clear that it is actually Valentine who will become Maria’s nemesis, not the scandal-prone young actress (Chloe Grace Moretz) who will take the role that the young Maria once played. We never get to see precisely how that dynamic works, though there are hints that Maria sees versions of her former, reckless, life-embracing young self in both of the young women.

Assayas, a veteran director best known for Irma Vep, admired for his Summer Hours and a former contributor to the esteemed Cahiers du Cinema, is also a screenwriter of some note. He has created a wonderful character study here of two women a generation apart who, at pivotal times in their lives, can see themselves in each other. I is also possible to see beyond the angst of celebrity that Maria is just another older woman faced with the challenge of letting go of her younger self.

The look of the film is the work of Yorick Le Saux, a cinematographer with an interesting filmography that includes I Am Love, Swimming Pool and Only Lovers Left Alive. In intimate style here, he has broken through the aura of the star, with hand-held, immediate and reactive camerawork.

Set in the Alps and in trains and cafe-bars, Clouds still manages to feel very intimate. A nebulous title, two powerful women and a thoughtful, sensitive and at times elusive screenplay make for a very good film indeed.

4 Stars