Clouds of Sils Maria, the latest from French writer-director Olivier Assayas, is a beautifully textured film of austere natural beauty and complicated interpersonal relationships. Assayas films, even the bad ones, are closely attuned to the effect physical spaces have on character’s interior lives. It’s never more literal than the contested estate in Summer Hours, a space laden with memories for a family in mourning. But there are also the anonymous techie nightmare locales in Demonlover, analogue procedurals in Carlos, vintage French cinema echoes in Irma Vep, semi-autobiographical activist circles in Something in the Air, and more. His characters don’t merely play out their stories. They inhabit a space, creating a richly textured stage for their dramas.
His new film takes place in Sils Maria, a small town in the Alps where, from the right scenic view, you can see the clouds sit majestically below the surrounding peaks. They come rolling in over the landscape, with the snowy mountaintops above, a green valley below. A shift in perspective can change an overcast day to one where the clouds snake low elegantly across the horizon. The story that takes place there carries inescapable comparison to Ingmar Bergman, spending the majority of its time with two women at a small house in the Swiss countryside, dealing with their personas and how they confront the existential questions of their lives. The wide-open spaces contrast with the cramped quarters as the women find themselves stuck together while heavy ideas threaten to weigh them down.
But where Bergman finds spiritual concerns at the center of being, Assayas here deals with art. They’re not debating the existence of God. They’re wrestling with textual analysis, competing interpretations of a script that just might define their relationship, their careers, maybe even their lives. This a gripping psychological dynamic wrapped around an invigorating academic exercise. The women are a middle-aged actress (Juliette Binoche) and her younger assistant (Kristen Stewart), who are staying in the isolated town while prepping for a new project. It’s a play about an aging businesswoman and her relationship with her young assistant. The actress made her debut in this play two decades earlier, in the role of the assistant. Now the playwright has died and she agrees to be in a new staging, taking on the other role.
The connection between past and present, life and art, is made clear, then underlined. It’s a moment of professional crisis for the actress, as Binoche subtly lets showbiz fears and artistic frustration mingle with a determination to do right by the play that gave her a start. She has memories of how old the other actress appeared to her back then, and now can hardly believe that she’s that age herself. It certainly doesn’t help her state to be staying in the house of the dead man, running lines with her assistant, who Stewart plays with a congenial disaffectedness sliding into unexpected passions. Their employer/assistant relationship drifts closer to a friendship, mirroring the similar dynamic in the play, which there ended in tragedy. Assayas will often start scenes without cluing us into whether or not we’re hearing lines or what these characters actually are. In this way, the play blends with life, as a fluid exploration of what life brings to art and vice versa.
Lightheaded in the altitude, they engage in long discussions of the play, about the text as an object, while the clouds roll through a pale blue sky. There’s a sense that they’re helping each other look into the haze and pull out an interpretation. The older woman can’t stop worrying that her character is thinly drawn and pathetic. The younger woman sees the same character as containing hidden depths. They’re both right, and wrong. There’s a terrifically unsettling sequence with footage of a winding road playing over images of Stewart, a woozy abstract symbol of the film’s hazy doublings. Because the play isn’t real in our world, and because we only glimpse it through their dialogues, these scenes play out like going to a great class without having done the reading. It’s fascinating, and also easy to get a little lost.
But this only adds to the mystery and gravity of this drama, in which every character is a reflection of the actress’s past – an old co-star (Hanns Zischler), the playwrights’ widow (Angela Winkler) – or a future she can’t quite imagine herself fitting in. We meet a wild young Hollywood actress (Chloe Grace Moretz), introduced through glimpses in YouTube videos and a scene from her franchise picture, then in scenes of icy recognition of the way the world restricts starlets’ choices. There’s an undertow of Hollywood commentary, reflected even in the careers of the three actresses. But in a film Yorick Le Saux shoots with cool calm, filled with palatial landscapes – rolling mountainsides, lush green hills, still waters – and lush classical music, Assayas locates a meditative edge to what could’ve easily been All About Eve or Birdman territory. This isn’t a movie about a desperate artist trying to prove her relevance, or fending off hungrier youth. It’s merely one trembling emotional current running beneath its iced-over surfaces.
There’s an absorbing charge to the leads’ relationship, an interdependence and emotional vulnerability as their isolation forces them to confront core questions about how they see the world and where they’re headed in life. In the process, Binoche and Stewart deliver a wonderful acting duet, playing off each other in ways that break down intermingling professional and personal angst with the feeling of a complicated, lived-in, in some ways unknowable, relationship. It’s a film about fighting insecurities and how unmerciful the world can be in leaving behind those who succumb to theirs. And yet together they make it a warm, sometimes funny, often casually incisive character study about two people who fear they’ve lost sight of who they want to be, and lean on each other while trying to move in the right direction, or at least change their perspective to see something wonderful.