The world famous French actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), star of stage and screen, is heading through the Alps by railway to deliver a tribute to the creative talent who gave her the big break that led her on this path to fame and fortune, accompanied only by her personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart). It is this younger American who manages her boss’s work commitments, near-constantly on the phone to contacts in the industry who offer her jobs and media types who will give the publicity to her interests as Maria desires, but she’s finding the mountains and tunnels an impediment to getting a decent signal. It is on this journey that she finally hears the bombshell: Maria’s early mentor has died suddenly.
Clouds of Sils Maria was a pet project for Juliette Binoche, who just as her character owed something of her early fame to a character we never see, was given a leg-up in the world of acting by her writer and director Olivier Assayas back in the nineteen-eighties. They had stayed friends, and she was keen to work with him again, so asked him to pen a screenplay loosely based on her public persona versus her private life, and this was the result. Although it didn’t seem that way for much of the running time, the plot was a mystery that encouraged you to draw your own conclusions, yet not everyone was prepared to let that conundrum be as the film practically pleaded the audience to analyse it, or indeed over-analyse it.
The bulk of the drama was taken up with Maria and Valentine alone in a country house in the middle of the Alpine countryside, as the actress must rehearse for a play she is not entirely convinced she should be part of, since it is the same one that was her breakthrough, only this time she plays not the ingénue role of a young woman lusted after by a pathetic older lesbian, but the older role, which may be some comment on the type of work a mature actress has to take, that of someone jealously observing the younger, up and coming generation rather than someone comfortable in their skin and satisfied with the number of years they have racked up. Whether that was a generalisation or not, Maria is not entirely sure she fits into that character when in the first version of the play she was ideal for the girl.
You can see from that we were asked to muse over our reactions to a bunch of preconceived ideas, and one of those was that two representatives of that younger generation of acting had any depth or ability or were merely hired for their name above the title drawing power in a bunch of none-too-intelligent blockbusters. Those actresses were Stewart of course, still finding it tough to ditch the teen queen regard from her huge successes in the Twilight movies, and Chloë Grace Moretz, who many were wondering how they should react from her transition from child star to grown up celebrity. In this, Moretz didn’t show up till the film was halfway over, and even then mostly in staged media clips presumably intended to have the viewer feel superior to the rigmarole that takes up the whole world of modern fame and entertainment.
The trouble is it often makes the filmmakers seem snide, and the clips we do see of, say, Moretz’s Jo-Ann Ellis (sort of a Lindsay Lohan on the brink of disaster but pulling it back just in time) on a chat show or in a Hollywood blockbuster, didn’t look authentic at all. Therefore if Assayas couldn’t get those right, how accurate was the rest of his observation on the life of a star like Binoche? She wasn’t complaining, so you had to assume she felt there was a ring of truth, yet even so there was an artificial quality to Clouds of Sils Maria (named after a natural phenomenon near the country house that is difficult to witness) which left you at a distance, sometimes a considerable one, from the heart of the film. There was nothing wrong with the acting, but with the deliberate obfuscation of what we were intended to draw from what happened to Maria and Valentine (especially Valentine) this was so vague that it came across as hardly worth the trouble to figure it out. As said, if you wanted a movie that you could chew over for some time afterward, this delivered, just be aware that someone’s notion of what it was about may well differ from your own.