Saturday, May 16, 2015

Parting Clouds: Olivier Assayas's Clouds of Sils Maria

Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria.

Now that he's reached the age of sixty, French director Olivier Assayas's work thankfully hasn't settled into austerity, but instead continues to give off a youthful inquisitiveness that remains quietly passionate and quirkily insightful. Rather than becoming reserved and pedantic in his observations, Assayas continues to sparkle with a wry and active curiousity. He rejects easy irony for a more open-ended bemusement that belies the affliction of time and collapses the gap that often exists between generations. In Irma Vep (1996), Assayas presented a middle-aged film director (Jean-Pierre Léaud) who tried to capture a past classic by remaking Louis Feuillade's silent serial Les vampires (1915-16) only to discover his flailing efforts had more to say about the state of the present. In his richly meditative Summer Hours (2008), a group of siblings begin to dread the disappearance of their childhood memories, along with their summer home, after their mother dies, only to soon recognize that those memories can be transformed by the generation that follows. Something in the Air (2012), which didn't get half the audience it deserved, looks back at the political and cultural turmoil of the early Seventies and examines a young activist who can't reconcile the rigidity of fixed ideologies with the fluid sensuality of the pop culture he loves. Assayas's films are almost always about the flux of life where meanings don't get imposed but are drawn from an expansive embrace of experience.

In his latest film, Clouds of Sils Maria, that flux of life is the texture of the story itself where by blurring the lines of demarcation between two generations of women, he shows how their different individual perspectives on both life and drama draw them together and tear them apart. Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is a hugely popular movie and stage star travelling by train to Zurich with her young American assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), to collect an award for an elderly reclusive playwright who twenty years earlier cast her in a play that launched her successful career. The play, Maloja Snake, centers on a turbulent relationship between Sigrid, a tempestuous young woman and her employer, Helena – that ultimately ends in tragedy. Maria had starred in the role of Sigrid. But the playwright suddenly dies which turns the evening into a tribute to his life. In Zurich, Maria is approached by a highly popular theatre director Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), who wishes to revive Maloja Snake, only this time with the now older Maria in the role of Helena and a young movie sensation, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), in the role of Sigrid, the part Maria still feels she owns. Although she agrees to do the production, it fills her with anxiety to give up her original character, and so she and Valentine rehearse the play in an effort to make her understand Helena's perspective. Of course, part of the comic tension in this conception comes from the fact that Valentine, who's around the age Maria was when she played Sigrid, hasn't lived long enough to fully grasp the older woman's feelings, so she can't help assuage Maria's anxieties. Their rehearsals end up acting out the dynamics from the play rather than illuminating them. From this premise, Assayas toys with issues of aging and the vagaries of time and examines that transparent line between the characters an actor plays and the roles we all play in real life.

Chloë Grace Moretz in Clouds of Sils Maria.

While the contrasting of age and experience in the world of theatre has worked to great comic effect in pictures like All About Eve, Clouds of Sils Maria with its Nordic location and climate better evokes the shifting female psyches of Ingmar Bergman's Persona, but with a naturalism that Bergman abandoned for abstraction. Maria is aware that she is getting older, but since she is an actress, she also believes in the illusion of drama which can disguise reality. And with Binoche in the role, it's hardly an effort to accept that illusion since she can transform herself in an instant into a radiant beauty (as she does in the Chanel gown she wears to the tribute gala). But Assayas isn't trying to pit Maria's belief in eternal youth and beauty against an ambitious and equally alluring Valentine. If Binoche's Maria has the formality of a huge star, Kristen Stewart has the spiky intrigue of outre glamour. While Maria doesn't feel that she fits into the era she now lives in, where she is going through a divorce and taking roles in pictures that don't interest her, Valentine is a product of the digital age and adaptable to circumstance partly because time is something that she perceives is always ahead of her. When they work through the lines of the play, the friction it causes comes from the fact that Maria is beginning to experience the ways in which Helena feels disposable in the eyes of her young lover. In playing Sigrid, Valentine quickly comes to understand that she can't make up for Maria's fears of irrelevancy and needs to break free from the symbiotic trap she already feels ensnared in as Maria's assistant. Stewart gives a remarkably unaffected performance, especially given her obvious awareness of her own iconic status in the Twilight series. But Assayas doesn't exploit that association to score points, he allows Stewart instead to draw from it as a means to expand Valentine's own perception of her predicament with Maria. The crossing of illusion and reality becomes so beautifully layered that the film never winks at the audience, but instead shifts our purview as delicately as the 'Maloja Snake' – a large cloud formation that weaves through the Maloja Pass in the Swiss Alps like an amorphous reptile slithering through and bringing turbulent weather in its wake.

The third major character Jo-Ann Ellis is clearly a delinquent Lindsay Lohan-type, but Chloë Grace Moretz transforms this tabloid icon into an intelligent performer. Jo-Ann not only knows how to manipulate the circumstances around herself and Binoche's Maria to enhance the tension needed to play opposite her, but she is also smart enough to understand her value as an actress. Moretz supplies a cunningly chameleon performance which allows her to pass through any emotional heavy weather that crosses her territory. Jo-Ann has become a comfortable star of pop blockbusters in the same way Maria is a huge 'serious' actress. So Jo-Ann sees Sigrid as a part that matches both her ambitions and her youthful ingenuity – a different set of ethics and circumstances than those that once informed Maria's interpretation of Sigrid.

All through the picture, Assayas clearly wants us to reflect on the illusory aspects of youth, middle-age and stardom rather than make facile judgments about their merits and detractions. It couldn't be further from Alejandro González Iñárritu's celebrated Birdman, with its tiring moralistic post-modern concept of artistic authenticity. Despite an arsenal of technical ingenuity, Birdman's conceit about acting and drama felt completely inauthentic and the movie eventually swallowed its own tale. Clouds of Sils Maria without employing a whisper of pyrotechnics actually takes us further inside the artistic process and illumines what it takes to both unveil and disguise reality.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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