I kinda love Clouds of Sils Maria. At its best, it is a female version of My Dinner With Andre. At it’s weakest, it is still interesting.
The premise is pretty basic. A famous middle-aged actress (Juliette Binoche) is offered the role of a middle-aged woman who becomes the (willing) victim of a 20something. The twist is, she played a version of the 20something a couple decades earlier in the role that launched her acting career.
This gift of self-examination – particularly needed by someone in the bubble of being a successful actress – is offered by the original writer (and apparent director) of the first play… but he dies before he can narrate the older actress’ journey into perspective. So she is alone with this.
Her sidekick is her assistant. And that’s when the movie gets interesting, because not only is the sidekick reflecting the actress’ ideas about youth, but she is played by Kristen Stewart, who aside from the details of “the play,” is in real life the living embodiment of a Juliette Binoche of 25 years ago. So every exchange is steeped in the reality, even if Stewart is playing an assistant in the film.
Adding another layer is the young actress who has been hired to play the 20-year-old character that the older actress had played. Chloë Moretz plays the actress… whose story is very much a reflection of the hysteria around Ms. Stewart in recent years, albeit more venal as an individual. Or is she?
It is one of my disappointments of the film that there is not more time with Kristen and Chloë, as characters, because I felt that the film spoke to how things have sped up. What took 2 decades to go from Binoche’s character’s view of life as a famous actress, inherited by Ms Stewart’s character, took less than a decade to transform into what Ms. Moretz’s character lives and represents.
There is a beat in which it seemed apparent that Ms. Moretz’s character wanted paparazzi attention after a tragedy near her… but Assayas pushes off of that a bit, perhaps to try to make the eventual revelation of her cynicism more of a surprise. But for me, that was a mistake.
Stewart’s character is filling multiple roles, symbolically, here. But the one as a reflection of what Moretz’s character may wake up to in a few years, the next even more aggressive/abusive/self-trapped person behind her, closing even faster.
I have had the opportunity to chat with Kristen Stewart a couple times before Twilight and a couple of times since. I have never felt like the genuine person is being hidden. There is a lot going on in her world… and she has been tardy… and she seems genuinely unhappy being poked at by those near her and at a distance… and she may even be a brat at times, don’t really know. But I like the person I’ve met. And I like this performance as much or more than anything I have seen her do. She reads as the person I have met, having been given that room by the screenplay and Assayas, and Binoche. It often feels like a beautifully lit document of two women to whom ideas are important, who respect each other, and who are worldly, each at very much their own age.
Chloë Moretz’s performance is also quite interesting, as she does eventually turn to her bag of (excellent) tricks. But before she does, she tones it way down… but is playing someone who – I think – is living a performance.
Of course, Binoche has become sublime. Every moment feels like someone you know and want to know better. She offers signs of her age, but still can bring the youthful energy at will. Apparently, this story was her idea… and good on her.
By choosing Olivier Assayas to work with, she not only found a director who can manage the male gaze without it becoming a leer, but he is not timid at all about, really, going without men of significance in the film. There is a dead man, an aging male star, an agent on an iPad, and a variety of male figures who do not define the women in the film… as all too often, female characters do not have a real effect on the men leading films.
I don’t think this is going to be the most popular of films with Cannes audiences. It doesn’t click off every box. But I really enjoyed watching every moment of it. The discussions in the film should be discussions we all have about art and artists much more often.