Review – Clouds of Sils Maria (dir. Olivier Assayas, 2014)
Throughout his career, Olivier Assayas has invoked conversations about art and its relationship to life, whether that means art’s association with love, commerce, or even revolution. Sometimes art is the main source of conversation, sometimes it’s just a thread, but it’s always there. In Summer Hours, a designer comes to terms with creating artifacts for money rather than good taste; In Irma Vep, an aging director struggles to take on the problem of adapting the classic film serial Les Vampires in late 20th century France; In Late August, Early September, a writer determines whether he should take a job that pays a living wage or do the work he really believes in.
In Clouds of Sils Maria, Assayas takes on the subject of art again, this time exploring how actors navigate their own lives, friendships, and romances. In the film, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) agrees to act in a revival of the play that made her a star. This time she plays a different role – an older woman and a foil for the younger character she portrayed in the past. Clouds of Sils Maria is based on true events. Assayas wrote the part that jumpstarted Binoche’s career in 1985’s Rendez-Vous, and the two have had a fruitful professional relationship ever since.
The narrative could have been tedious in lesser hands. However, rather than slip into a self-reflexive wormhole, the real-life parallel is merely a jumping off point for a more interesting discussion about our relationship to culture as we grow older. Our view of the movies, books, and plays we previously enjoyed constantly readjusts as we gain experience, perspective, and cynicism.
Several relationships ground the movie. One is Maria’s close (and borderline sexual) friendship with her bright, young assistant, Valentine, played by Kristen Stewart. The other is Maria’s relationship to the recently deceased playwright Wilhelm Melchior (a stand-in for Assayas), to whom she owes her success. Finally, Maria must confront memories of her younger self as she prepares for the the play’s revival.
For Assayas, the relationship between life and art is often porous. Most art lovers identify with this point of view. Anyone who truly loves literature, performance, or whatever else is hard-pressed to separate these mediums from from the basic events of day-to-day life. If I listen to my iPod on the train, whatever album is playing is inseparable from the memory of that particular commute. For actors, the division must be near impossible to comprehend.
These blurred lines are especially evident in a sequence where Maria and Valentine practice the script for the upcoming play. In some moments, viewers wonder how the actresses could possibly dissect the levels of artifice and roleplaying. The scene grows tense as the two women argue about the characters. Enders despairs over the weakness of the older woman she has agreed to play, as though age must necessarily be tied up with some kind of failing. Ironically, it’s the young Valentine who disagrees with this perspective.
I get tired of self-reflexive discussions of art, which revolve around questions like, “Where does the narrative begin and reality end?” Film is particularly susceptible to this conversational rabbit hole. Looking too deeply into the division is an amateur move. The discussion feels fresh here, partly because of the great talent of the performers and the chemistry between them, but also because Assayas settles on an exploratory approach to these questions. He’s not particularly interested in coming to any firm conclusions. To Assayas, it’s self-evident that art and life overlap. What makes the conversation interesting is how this phenomenon manifests itself in unique lives and how it influences the natural human desire to be creative and make more art.
In Clouds of Sils Maria, generational differences shape how Maria and Valentine understand the film industry. In fact, there are moments in the movie that should provide a new outlook for anyone who is fed up with the stream of comic book superhero movies Hollywood currently pumps out. After watching one such film together, the women have an impassioned discussion about it – a conversation that is familiar to film buffs everywhere (I’ve certainly had it). We also see a short sequence of the film – a glossy, colorful, sci-fi movie – but not enough to guess at whether the film is supposed to be good or not. Valentine is frustrated when she brings up nuances Maria either refuses to see or doesn’t notice. Plenty of purists think big budgets, explosions, and hero costumes are anathema to great film, but a point of view nevertheless bubbles up from the surface of these movies. Trends change. The cinema landscape has transformed into armies of superheroes and end-to-end franchises, but does that mean the end of film as a great art form? Not necessarily. Is it refreshing to see a stalwart of French cinema take this stance? Definitely.
Like Assayas’ other films, this one is fun to watch – when his characters aren’t talking philosophy, he allows us to simply experience their joy, and he elicits our own in the process. He photographs gorgeous scenery and choreographs the wending movement of clouds to Pachelbel’s Canon as though the mountains themselves are playing the arrangement. With its elliptical nature and playful examination of friendship, romance and aging, Clouds of Sils Maria fits neatly into Assayas’ body of work as much as it stands alone.