Clouds of Sils Maria gives us a unique and fascinating relationship, that between a French actress named Maria (Juliette Bincoche) and her personal assistant Val (Kristen Stewart). Although they are employer and employee, there is something almost familial about the way they treat each other—sisters separated by a number of years, perhaps.
We sense this affection in the way Maria lets her guard down around Val—Binoche has a great, snorty laugh—and the way Val seems genuinely enthralled by Maria as a performer. (After letting out a wolf whistle for Maria from the side of a stage, Val breaks into a big, impulsive smile.) Their shared project is the managing of Maria’s career, and we can tell it’s something they both enjoy working on together.
The challenge they face at the start of the film is a daunting new project: a revival of the play that launched Maria to stardom some 20 years earlier. Then, she played the part of a youthful temptress who seduces an older woman. Now, she’s been cast in the older role. It elicits a personal and professional crisis for Maria, one that may prove too complicated for Val to manage.
Stewart gives a surprisingly warm portrayal, one that’s loose and open to her costar.
Coming from writer-director Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep, Summer Hours), Clouds of Sils Maria is a movie of many layers, most of which are only partly revealed. There is a Hollywood spoof buried in here (including a sequence from a science-fiction blockbuster Maria and Val go to see), as well as an exploration of female identity worthy of Ingmar Bergman (particularly Persona). When Maria and Val begin to do line readings from the original play, with Maria trying to shake off her memories of the younger part so that she can read the older, the meta qualities get even thicker. Is Val now the seductress, and Maria her target?
Binoche and Stewart are excellent throughout, but it’s these line-reading scenes that reveal the intricacies of their acting. Up until then, Stewart has given a surprisingly warm portrayal, one that’s loose and open to her costar. But when reading the play’s dialogue, she slips into what we normally think of as a “Kristen Stewart performance”—at once aloof and aggressive—before slipping back out of it again when they pause from rehearsing. “You don’t know me,” is one of the lines she reads while playing the younger part. Maria begins to wonder if maybe she doesn’t know Val.
Clouds of Sils Maria has a wonderful climax in which Maria and Val take a break from their rehearsing to go on a hike high in the mountains. Something happens that is shrouded in mystery—although if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll note that it’s a mystery directly tied to the text of the play. There’s a sense, in that moment, that all of the movie’s elements suddenly, metaphysically, coalesce into a single curiosity. And then, like the clouds of the title, the moment drifts away.