While many have labeled Clouds of Sils Maria as writer-director Olivier Assayas’ take on Persona or an update of his almost twenty-year-old Irma Vep – both comparisons of which definitely hold weight – Clouds’ closest relative might be Abbas Kiarostami’s 2010 masterpiece Certified Copy. Late in Clouds of Sils Maria, Kristen Stewart’s Valentine mentions that the perspective of life’s moments changes depending on where you stand. Much like Certified Copy questioned the idea of whether or not reproductions can be as great as the real thing, Clouds of Sils Maria masterfully weighs the pros and cons of youth and age from varying perspectives, all while discussing the work of the actors and director in a meta context, handled in a more satisfying way then more recent films like Maps to the Stars or Birdman have been able to accomplish.
Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is an accomplished actress who was launched into fame in the play and film Maloja Snake, where she played the young Sigrid, a personal assistant who manipulates and seduces her older boss Helena. With decades having passed since the original play, a new director wants to take on the material, but with Enders in the Helena role and with the hot young actress Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz) playing the role of Sigrid. While conflicted over taking on a role that she has no connection with, Enders agrees in the new adaptation and holes herself up with her assistant Valentine (Stewart) to rehearse and try to get a grasp of this new challenge.
Much like Assayas’ Summer Hours and that film’s interest in the ideas of Ozu, Clouds of Sils Maria has Enders questioning her place in a world where she might no longer belong. To Enders, she still sees more of herself as the young, ambitious actress, while the rest of the world waits in excitement for her to play the older role opposite, with Ellis quickly coming up in the ranks to devour what’s left of Enders’ popularity. As Valentine puts it, you can either be young and innocent or have the knowledge that age bestows, but lose the innocence.
But Clouds of Sils Maria has plenty of fun with how we perceive these actresses in wonderful ways. Binoche was once the hot, young actress, but now she’s become the smart thespian who can do pretty much any film that is thrown her way. Throughout Sils, she’s given the option to play everything from a middle-aged businesswoman to an ageless android and it’s clear that both Binoche and Enders could pull both off brilliantly. Yet it’s Stewart’s Valentine who plays this line in the most clever ways, rolling her eyes when discussing a film that has “werewolves for whatever reason,” and yet going to bat for Ellis in a role where Valentine looks beyond the character’s superpowers and into what she’s doing as an actress. In the film’s most exciting scene, Valentine and Enders discuss an awful looking big-budget sci-fi film that Ellis stars in, that’s plays almost as if Assayas wants his audience to rethink the Twilight films, and in Stewart’s fantastic performance, you almost want to give them a second chance. Between her performance here and her understated role in Still Alice, Stewart might finally be able to leave those werewolf films behind her.
This blurring of the line between the Maloja Snake play, the film’s reality and our reality makes Clouds of Sils Maria a film that might need multiple viewings to unpack. As Enders and Valentine rehearse the play – in which the relationship between Sigrid and Helena plays closely to their own – it’s often hard to tell if they’re still reading their lines or discussing their true feelings. Much like Binoche’s Certified Copy role, there’s many layers to every line that is being given.
Clouds of Sils Maria is a fascinating, multilayered, introspective look into the difficulties of Hollywood and of growing older in general that might rank among Assayas’ best. Ellis states near the end of the film that the audience always wants what comes next and as far as the films of Assayas, Binoche and especially Stewart are concerned, she couldn’t be more right.