The chief preoccupation of the films of adventuresome French filmmaker Olivier Assayas is the proverbial passing of the baton. His latest, sixteenth feature, “Clouds of Sils Maria,” is a flawed but poignant entry into this career-long thematic fixation. The film premiered at Cannes in 2014 and enjoyed a lengthy film festival run before making its theatrical debut in the U.S. “Clouds[’s]” narrative is a multigenerational waltz through a combined half a century of regret and personal angst. Juliette Binoche plays Maria Enders, a renowned actress of stage and screen asked to accept a lifetime achievement prize for a colleague and friend, Wilhelm Melchior, who jumpstarted her career many years ago. However, while en route to the ceremony, Maria’s assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), receives word that Wilhelm has died. Maria is a complex figure, clearly talented, but intermittently childish, and her once-collaborator’s death rattles her. She accepts the award on his behalf, and is subsequently offered a part in a revival of Melchior’s play and film, entitled “Maloja Snake.” The revival project is conceived by a hotshot European theater director, Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), a pretentious creative force who wants to cast Maria.
It’s after this point, at the 35-minute mark, when a red-lettered title card appears denoting Part Two, and “Clouds of Sils Maria” becomes something altogether stranger. The film’s opening is promisingly crafted and well-performed, but it also threatens to devolve into a conventional procedure of insider celebrity dramas or a portrait of art and reality merging and distorting one another. The second, and largest, section of the film is set almost entirely at the deceased Melchior’s home in the Swiss mountains. For a few months, Maria and Valentine run the actress’s lines during the daytime and drinking and smoking copious cigarettes at night. But Assayas does not hit the obvious notes; in the impressively acted rehearsal scenes between Binoche and Stewart’s characters, the writer/director opts not to intentionally confuse the audience as to whether or not the women are saying lines from the play or speaking their actual minds as we might expect. Rather, there is always a stable delineation between what is part of “Clouds of Sils Maria” and what is read from the fictional “Maloja Snake,” a distinction that, paradoxically, allows connections between the art and Maria and Valentine’s ‘real’ lives and relationship to surface more gracefully.
Assayas’s film is indeed a thicket of words, a genuine talkathon in which characters are constantly interpreting the art they consume and arguing about philosophical issues of identity, aging, and interpretation itself. Most of these conversations are revealing and retain a well-modulated level of self-awareness, but some of Assayas’s dialogue tips into the boldfaced. Assayas and company are usually able to skirt such explicitness, but in these moments, and perhaps in the outlining of the titular cloud-formation metaphor, the film’s vagueness is clarified too much. But what’s remarkable is how often the master filmmaker is able to defy such easy associations with his most glitzy cast list.
Like “Boarding Gate” before it, Assayas’s camera is tied to his leading ladies, and “Clouds of Sils Maria” provides a robust showcase for a few exceedingly talented female actors. The filmmaker brilliantly cuts from scene to scene (marked by fade-to-black ellipses) based on the shifting emotions—as Maria walks away from the camera and down a hallway talking on her cellphone early on, the scene dissolves. This expressionism is exemplified most stunningly in a mid-film sequence in which Valentine exhaustedly drives home on a steep, winding mountain road—as anguish and frustration cross Stewart’s face, her pains are felt by the daring use of overlaying images and a striking choice of music. The film may overstate its thematic targets, but its naturalistic behavioral observations and way of attuning to its characters’ wandering souls gives it plenty of fodder for interest.