by Elliot Davies
Olivier Assayas’s latest cements its lead as a legend, and her support as a major talent in her own right. Clouds of Sils Maria had a UK preview at the 2015 Derby Film Festival.
The unforgivable, inexplicable double standard that allows men to age gracefully onscreen whilst relegating women to the roles of mothers and crones has, understandably, ticked off quite a few actors. Meryl Streep recalled that she was offered three roles in the year she turned 40, and they were all witches.
Clouds of Sils Maria is based on an original idea by its lead, Juliette Binoche, which writer director Olivier Assayas adapted into a sprawling exploration of agelessness, and the strange ways in which life can imitate art – whether you want it to or not.
It deals with a middle aged female actor – Maria, played by Brioche – who is asked to revisit the play that launched her career 20 years ago, in which she portrayed a young woman seducing her older boss. However, in order to make room for a bratty new killer star, this time she’s asked to play the older woman – to switch from the seducer to the seduced.
She doesn’t take it well. But the playwright responsible for her fame has just died, and the hot young director proves most convincing. Plus, given a choice between the indignity of the play and “hanging from wires in front of a green screen”, she ultimately relents.
What follows is a long period spent in the company of Maria and her assistant, Valentine, as they retreat to a house in the Alps to practice lines and hone roles.
Valentine is played by Kristin Stewart, who’s fantastic. Her performance here earned her a César Award – the French equivalent of an Oscar – and it feels deserved.
Valentine’s time in the Alps with Maria is spent inhabiting a number of different roles – sounding board, designated driver, skinny-dipper – but she mostly plays Sigrid to Maria’s Helena. These are the two leads in the play she’s preparing for. They’re inter-generational lovers – Sigrid’s the seducer, and Helena’s the seduced.
In a series of rapid-fire rehearsal scenes, the lines between performance and reality begin to blur, and it ceases to be clear just what is said in character, and what is simply said.
Binoche is a veteran who inhabits makes every role she plays until it becomes her world, but Stewart proves herself to be a most worthy sparring-partner, and every scene they share is a joy to behold.
Clouds of Silas Maria is intensely layered. As is fitting for a film that toys with the idea that the whole world is a stage, the layers of meaning overlap with the real world. In what might be the most impressive feat of method acting in recent years, Binoche claims that she only took a role in 2014’s Godzilla to make it plausible that her character, Maria, might have appeared in blockbuster films.
Similarly, Maria returns to a revival of a play written by her mentor, which made her famous 20 years ago. This is an eerie echo of real life: Director Olivier Assayas worked on Rendez-vous, released 20 years ago, which originally helped to make Binoche a star. Meta!
There’s so many layers to unravel that it’s perhaps unreasonable to expect too much from an initial viewing. I’m already longing to take in a repeat viewing or three, so as to fully immerse myself in the film’s many overarching themes.
I think, though, that anyone who attended the same screening as me might be forgiven for finding the opening to be a little uneven. This screening was preceded by an introduction by Isabel Stevens, Production Editor of Sight & Sound. As well as outlining some of the themes of the film, she told us to look out for a tribute to silent cinema – one of Assayas’s great loves.
The film opened in total silence. Five minutes or so passed without a single word being said. Instead, we got a calming soundtrack of the sort of piano music that might traditionally have accompanied silent films. Naturally, we assumed this to be the tribute that Stevens had mentioned. We sat there, brows furrowed, chins resting in hands, nodding. So brave! So daring!
Well, it was a technical fault. The film was started again, this time with sound. Quite a few people probably felt a bit silly – and it took some time for me to get back into my film-watching groove.
As a result, after my initial viewing, Clouds of Sils Maria unfortunately feels like a curate’s egg; a sandwich made from stale white supermarket bread, but filled with the finest of fillings and oozing with the most delicious of flavours. The start felt messy, for obvious reasons. The ending felt even messier, for reasons that I cannot go into without potentially spoiling the experience for newcomers.
The middle, though, was exquisite. Even if things don’t improve on repeat viewings, it’d be nice to simply spend more time in the company of Val and Maria.
Clouds of Sils Maria is released in the UK on May 15, 2015.