Oscillations between internal and external violence give Oliver Assayas' films a level of volatility despite their normally elegant façades. His characters experience escalations in emotion that constantly threaten their perceived understanding of identity. Different modes of art-making often act as a conduit to this process. Take, for instance, Assayas' prickly masterpiece Irma Vep about a film production that combusts from within, or his cryptic neon porno nightmare demonlover, both of which examine the blurred lines between performance and personality.
Clouds of Sils Maria, the French director's new meta-drama, contains similar thematic DNA. Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is a well-respected actress who gained acclaim 20 years earlier while working on a play called Maloja Snake. In the opening sequence, she travels by train with her assistant Valentine (Kristin Stewart) on their way to a Swiss-hosted retrospective of Wilhelm Melchior (Valery Bukreev), the reclusive writer responsible for jumpstarting her career. Before arriving at their destination, they receive word that Wilhelm has died, news that turns what was meant to be a celebration into a memorial.
Once on the ground, Maria is approached by Klaus (Lars Eidinger), a talented young director wishing to revitalize Maloja Snake and cast her once again, this time in the older role of an aging businesswoman who eventually commits suicide after being seduced by a cunning young female intern. Troubled Hollywood "It" girl JoAnn Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz) is set to play the original role made famous by Maria two decades before.
After this brief prologue, Clouds of Sils Maria shifts to the country estate of Melchior's widow, where Maria and Valentine are holed up to line-read and relax before the play begins. What seems like a simple setup quickly turns enigmatic and sensual. Assayas juxtaposes serene images of the Swiss Alps with lengthy dialogue sequences indoors. Both settings provide the two women ample room for verbal sparring sessions. Repressed feelings of anger and doubt begin to overwhelm Maria while Valentine attempts to dissect why exactly her boss has entered into such a flustered state.
In their relationship we find youth brushing up against maturity, social media omniscience strangling modernist ideals, and elitism trying to understand lowbrow theatrics. Assayas ingrains all of these ideas within the subtext of Maria and Valentine's conversations, in which Binoche and Stewart brilliantly play off each other's perceived weaknesses and strengths. We never quite know how far the emotional pendulum will swing, or even in which direction.
Both Maria and Valentine, like everyone in Clouds of Sils Maria, struggle to reconcile with each other's warring perspectives. There's natural tension in the overlap, as witnessed during the film's climactic sequence set atop a mountain overlooking a vast valley lake. In this moment, something splinters between Maria and Valentine, and the film itself takes a hard right turn away from poetics and toward brash reality. Assayas uses this plot twist to explore the duality of performance, but also the sadness of separation. Just as we've gotten used to the strange rhythm that defines Maria and Valentine's relationship, it's taken away in jarring fashion.
Clouds of Sils Maria, which opens Friday, April 24, uses words to deflect our attention from the deep absence felt by its characters. In the end, this very classic art film finds solid ground with which to perch and admire all of the messy hoopla that is the Internet age. Just as Maria smiles at the end of the final luminous shot, Assayas too achieves a level of peace with the new ways film and other media have turned "reality" into an absurd imitation of life.
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