Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria is more than just another meta-film because it’s a film about more than its own subject matter—that is, theater—but about the ontology of art in relation to our perceptions of our own modern culture through time and so Assayas has achieved a monumental feat in creating a film that’s truly transcendent of its own temporality.
Twenty years ago Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) played the role of Sigrid in the play/film Maloja Snake, whose script is centered on an 18-year old girl wooing a 40-year old woman. Now at the age of 40 herself, Enders unwillingly decides to play the role opposite of Sigrid, Helena, and must come to grips with her own past, present and future.
Clouds of Sils Maria is a multitude of other films; there are elements of Richard Linklater’s Slacker, Federico Fellini’s 8½, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, and finally, a dash of style from Robert Bresson but Clouds of Sils Maria never gives into its perceived influences so much as it uses them to create something new. In various ways, the past clashes with the present and to this extent, Assayas employs a heavy use of conversational dialogue between Enders and her assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart).
Whereas Enders is cynical towards Hollywood, celebrity culture, and the current state of cinema—one dominated by superhero films—Valentine is more optimistic, open and free. Embodied in Enders and Valentine is the struggle of old ideology, whether it concerns life or art, and new ideology, respectively, with Stewart’s character being representative of a movement towards New Sincerity that’s reminiscent of David Foster Wallace’s literary work. The result of such differences is a plethora of conversations between the two, across the entirety of the film, conversations which never feel cinematic but real and sincere. Assayas’ writing in combination with the wonderful chemistry between Stewarts and Binoche successfully avoid the pitfall of having the themes of Clouds of Sils Maria be too heavy-handed because the film deploys its messages in a subtle manner that allows for its different viewers to pull what they want from the film and it is this nature of subjectivity that makes Clouds of Sils Maria timeless.
In discussing the nature of her role as Helena, Enders brings up the subject of Helena’s weakness due to old age—in Majola Snake, Helena is hinted at having committed suicide from heartbreak—but Valentine sees strength, wisdom, and a chance at breaking away from her otherwise orderly life in the character. The two heavily argue about the relationship of Sigrid to Helena, as well as the relationship between Enders to each of the two characters, with the conclusion being that interpretations of the text change not only between readers but across time. It is by discussing the timeliness of art that Clouds of Sils Maria reaches the status of being timeless itself but a distinction needs to be made in understanding that Clouds of Sils Maria isn’t making a romanticized argument for the timelessness of art, as the film avoids being both being either too romantic or too cinematic.
Despite its reach beyond time, however, Clouds of Sils Maria is embedded with a certain sense of modern, thus timed, American pop culture, in the form of its character Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz). Ellis is hired opposite of Enders for the role of Sigrid in the Majola Snake remake and upon finding out who Ellis is—Enders has a distaste for “celebrity gossip” and the internet as a whole—Enders is both fascinated and repulsed by Ellis. Watching Enders watch Ellis’ explosive moments captured by the paparazzi brings to mind images of the world watching celebrity figures like Britney Spears’ or Lindsay Lohans’ most vulnerable and intimate, as well as private moments, forcefully made public and it is this need for the utmost private lives of figures a culture may garnish, made public, that Enders is repulsed by and is quick to pass judgement on Ellis before meeting her. In those same images, however, Valentine (Assayas constantly stresses the difference that stems from Valentine’s and Enders’ ages and here, it is the participation in celebrity and modern culture) sees an actress worth working with and convinces Enders to meet her and soon enough, Enders is persuaded.
Clouds of Sils Maria is a magnificent film that poignantly touches upon all its subjects with a refined manner that transforms the narrative into something grander, yet still retains the sense of a personal journey and a certain sense of cinematic wonder that could only be provided by the medium making it one of the best films of the year as well as decade.