Life imitates art in all sorts of beguiling ways in Clouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas’s intricate character drama about fame, art, and mortality. With fluid direction that nonetheless proves sneakily sharp in its evocative framing and transitional fades, Assayas’s latest tracks actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) into rehearsals of a new production of the play Maloja Snake – about a boss being overtaken by her assistant (and lesbian lover) – that first made her a star twenty years earlier.
Now asked to inhabit the older, suicidal role opposite young, tabloid-beloved up-and-comer Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), Maria struggles to come to terms with her new status, a discomfort she routinely articulates to her own personal assistant, Val (Kristen Stewart). Their conversations and trial-runs of the material, much of which take place at a house in the Sils Maria mountains once owned by the play’s now-deceased writer, form the basis of Assayas’s film, and grow ever-pricklier as Maria begins to inhabit the part, and spars with Val over interpretations of the material.
Clouds of Sils Maria jabs at modern Hollywood’s superhero/franchise fixation – including a ripe one from Stewart about pre-teens’ cultural influence – all while casting that genre’s dominance as another reason for Maria’s fear of becoming obsolete. Youth’s “creative energy,” as well as its fleeting nature, are prime preoccupations of Assayas’s story, which immerses itself in Maria’s efforts to keep herself artistically and professionally vital in a TMZ- and Internet-saturated modern world that she finds simultaneously repulsive and irresistible. Assayas’s digs at actorly pretentions and anxieties are rooted in a genuine empathy for his protagonist’s insecurity that she’s being left behind, and that like her character in “Maloja Snake,” she may become so passé that she’ll simply disappear.
The recurring sight of the actual Maloja Snake – a cascading cloudbank that navigates Sils Maria’s canyons – speaks to those notions with a subtlety and grace that’s indicative of the film as a whole. Even when its reality-vs.-fiction parallels feel a bit too on-the-nose, Clouds of Sils Maria has a richness of theme and character that’s consistently engaging, thanks in no small part to a modulated turn by Binoche as a star not yet ready to pass the torch to the next generation, and by a mysterious, enigmatic Stewart as a young woman caught uneasily, and ambiguously, between the past, present and future.