Juliette Binoche, left, plays an aging actress and Kristen Stewart her assistant, in Olivier Assayas's Clouds of Sils Maria. Image courtesy IFC Films.

Clouds of Sils Maria
directed by Olivier Assayas
IFC Films

“What if in cinema the genuine artistic gesture were not so much the completed result as the shooting itself?” the seasoned French director Olivier Assayas asks. That idea seems to inspire the screenplay of the delightful and baffling Clouds of Sils Maria, much of it taken up with the rehearsal of a play we never see performed.

Assayas was born and bred into the French film industry. As a teenager, he worked on scripts with his father, Jacques Rémy, a prolific screen and television writer and protégé of the great Max Ophüls, the doyen of classic French film. (Rémy had changed his recognizably Jewish name, Raymond Assayas.) Seeking his own identity, Olivier started out as a painter. But he was offered a position at the famous journal Cahiers Du Cinema, whose early contributors had been part of the legendary New Wave. His work at Cahiers, Olivier believes, was his film school, where he honed his writing and deepened his filmmaking expertise. He coauthored a book-long series of interviews with Ingmar Bergman, became the French authority on Asian films, and thought long and hard about film as an art form with political significance. He began writing screenplays, following in his father’s footsteps; his script for Rendez-vous (1985), his first major film, gave the eighteen-year-old Juliette Binoche the role that made her a star.

As Binoche went on to become one of Europe’s most celebrated actors, so Assayas would in time establish himself as one of France’s most respected auteurs. Thirty years later Binoche took the initiative and asked Assayas to make a film that would feature her. Clouds of Sils Maria is the result of their collaboration, though the actress may not have fully appreciated how psychobiographical the film would be.

• • •

In Rendez-vous Binoche played an aspiring actress from the provinces. Desperate to make her way, she uses sex and is scarred by her experiences. Finally she is cast in the starring role of Romeo and Juliet. The movie ends with Binoche’s character frozen with stage fright in the wings of the theater. Can she act?

Binoche’s career has had its ups and downs as she charted her own course. She has constantly looked for new artistic challenges. She tried the stage, dazzling audiences with her performance in Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. She also took the role of the quintessentially British Catherine Earnshaw in Peter Kosminsky’s Wuthering Heights (1992), opposite Ralph Fiennes as Heathcliff. Critics mocked her French accent, and the film failed at the box office. But she had gained international stardom in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), and at a high point in her career she famously turned down Steven Spielberg’s offer of a role in Jurassic Park (1993). Instead she teamed with the brilliant Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski to do Blue (1993), a convincing portrayal of a woman’s struggle with mourning and melancholia. Never did sadness look so lovely. She was also an artistic and box office success in Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient (1996), for which she earned an Oscar. Then, at forty, she decided to take up dance. Her performance in In-I (2008), an erotic seduction with accomplished dancer Akram Khan, packed theaters the world over, despite ridicule from critics.

During these same years, she had complicated relationships with several famous actors—Daniel Day Lewis and Mathieu Amalric among them—and had two children with two other men. In her spare time, Binoche paints and has had a successful exhibition of portraits depicting all of her directors.

Nearing fifty and in search of a new challenge, Binoche reached out to Assayas. Clouds is a meditation on this moment in Binoche’s career: an actress dealing with the anxiety of growing old, the window of opportunity closing, her beauty and the limelight fading as younger women take her place. Assayas wanted the audience to realize that behind the fiction on the screen, Binoche was telling her own story.

At key emotional moments, Assayas defeats viewers' expectations.

But not just her story. Assayas is committed to breaking out of the petit sujet style that has characterized and cabined much of French cinema, including most of his own films. His most notable recent project, released in 2010, was a five-hour miniseries about Carlos the Jackal, the international terrorist whose exploits Assayas filmed on several continents. Assayas described it as part global documentary, part Scarface (1983).

Clouds was to have something of that real-life and global perspective. Assayas cast Kristen Stewart as Binoche’s personal assistant. Stewart is one of the best known—and highest paid—actors of this century, thanks to her starring role in the Twilight films, which have grossed billions. Disdained by mainstream critics but the target of paparazzi and round-the-clock gossip, Stewart is adored by young fans around the world. This casting choice brings Assayas full circle, back to his breakout film, Irma Vep (1996). Now a cult classic, Irma Vep—an anagram of “vampire”—tells the story of the remake of a French silent vampire movie. For Clouds Assayas also cast Chloë Grace Moretz, who built a Hollywood career as a child star, often in horror films. Now, at eighteen, she is trying to prove she can act.

Assayas has observed that the art house audience is “aging and becoming kind of conservative,” and indeed among a small sample of filmgoers I polled, no one had seen a Twilight movie or heard of Moretz. While art house audiences might expect Binoche to be the dignified master and Stewart and Moretz talentless studio mannequins, both supporting actresses give impressive performances. Stewart’s presence and talent rival Binoche’s and may have stolen the film, as the screenplay foretells. The role earned her a Cèsar, a first for an American actress. And Moretz is compelling as she demolishes Binoche’s character.

• • •

Clouds takes place in three acts. In the first, Maria Enders (Binoche) is traveling by train to Zürich to attend a tribute for the playwright Wilhelm Melchior. Twenty years earlier Maria had starred as Sigrid in his The Maloja Snake, first on stage and then on film; the role launched her international career (think Rendez-vous). Sigrid seduces, manipulates, and destroys her corporate boss Helena, who takes her life. Lesbian sex and seduction here is a version of the master-slave relationship. Now Maria is being asked to do the play again on the London stage, only this time as Helena.

On the train, Maria negotiates the terms of her divorce while Valentine (Stewart), her personal assistant, fields casting inquiries, most of them beneath her. Maria is in great demand, but she behaves like a prima donna. Valentine has her feet on the ground. She knows what is best for Maria’s career, nurses her vanity, and even cares about her. The mood darkens when Maria gets the news that Melchior has died. In fact his wife shares her secret burden with Maria: he committed suicide. Now the question of whether she will take the role of Helena becomes more pressing.

Everyone involved offers different interpretations of the play to coax her into the role. But they all ignore the crucial psychological obstacle: for Maria to imagine herself in the part of Helena, she must discard her foolish but sustaining self-image as the youthful Sigrid. It is instead Jo-Ann Ellis (Moretz) who will play that role, but Maria wants to be able to pretend she is still young. With trepidation and against her better judgment, she agrees to take the part. Valentine talks her into it on professional grounds.

In the second act, Maria and Valentine are offered the dead playwright’s chalet in Sils Maria in the southern Alps to rehearse for her performance. Their relationship begins to resemble the seductive struggle in the play; it is hard to tell whether the lines they speak about their own increasingly intimate relationship are the play’s or their own. Valentine begins to outthink and dominate Maria, who over the course of the film comes to look less feminine, more butch. Particularly interesting is their debate about Hollywood blockbusters and Jo-Ann’s performance in a science fiction film. Maria scoffs, but Valentine insists that success in commercial films demands acting as deeply felt as that required by art house fare.

Filled with interrupted and sometimes bewildering conversations, Clouds has multiple psychological layers that one may fully understand only in retrospect. But the film is also a cinematic spectacle. Sils Maria is where Friedrich Nietzsche spent his summers and first wrote of eternal recurrence. It is also the site from which tourists can look down and watch cloud formations wend their way through the high-mountain Maloja Pass. Arnold Fanck, a German silent filmmaker, captured The Cloud Phenomena of Maloja from Sils Maria in 1924, and a clip of that black-and-white film is shown in Clouds. The spectral cloud snake is even more awesome in Assayas’s color film, accompanied by Pachelbel’s Canon. But its precise metaphorical significance is never explained, one of several enigmas the film leaves unresolved.

Possibly Assayas intends to bewilder us. At key emotional moments he goes to blackout and changes the scene, defeating our expectations. One startling instance comes when Maria and Valentine make an early morning trek to view the Maloja snake; Valentine suddenly disappears and is never seen again. It is perhaps this director’s way of demonstrating there is no one reality, no simple explanation of the struggle for power and recognition, no solution for the loss of beauty and aging, no lasting treaty in the war between generations—not even one final interpretation of a play. What Assayas gives us is the art of rehearsal and the search for answers.

As for the new production of Melchior’s play, it is clear that Maria is not even the star. Jo-Ann is the power broker. They are staging the play in London because she is having an affair with a young English novelist. His wife’s attempt to kill herself only adds to Jo-Ann’s celebrity. Maria comes close to humiliation and defeat.

Real life may supply a fourth act of Clouds of Sils Maria. In it, the missing Valentine—Kristen Stewart—turns up. Having proved herself as an actress in Clouds, she and Assayas are teaming up to make Personal Shopper, “a Paris-set English language ghost story taking place in the fashion underworld,” says a press release. Meanwhile, the irrepressible Binoche is performing on the London stage in a sold-out contemporary rendition of Antigone.