When Kristen Stewart exits a Zurich train station and finds no paparazzi lurking outside, you know she relished delivering the line, “The cockroaches must’ve taken a later train.” Playing Valentine, a film star’s personal assistant, the actress didn’t have to look far to find inspiration for the role. A pap-pursued cog in the Twilight machinery, Stewart has been surrounded in real life by such young, hard-working women for years.
Phone glued to her ear, dealing with film publicists, media outlets and lawyers on her client’s behalf, her Val is factotum to Juliette Binoche’s famed actress Maria Enders. Maria is the lead character in Clouds of Sils Maria, but Valentine is the more interesting one. That proves to be a fascinating reflection — intentional or not — of one of the core themes of this latest from protean writer-director Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep, Demonlover, Clean, Carlos, Summer Hours).
We meet Valentine in a train zipping through the Alps, en route to a Zurich film festival where Binoche’s Maria will accept a lifetime award on behalf of the reclusive playwright-director Wilhelm, whose play turned Maria into a star at age 18. Unfortunately, before the train reaches Zurich, he has died, hiking the countryside near his chalet in the region of the Swiss village Sils Maria.
After the now somber awards ceremony, Maria is wooed to star in a stage production by a young director, Klaus (Lars Eidinger). She has no clue who he is, but Valentine tells her he’s a real up-and-coming talent.
Maria gives weight to Val’s endorsement, a sign that the women have a deeper bond than just employer-employee. Valentine sometimes seems like a kid sister or best friend — someone who doesn’t just maintain Maria’s calendar but can call her out when the actress is, well, acting out.
Binoche and Stewart have fantastic rapport onscreen. You believe they’re two people who have known (and put up with) each other for a long time. And you wonder, can things continue to go smoothly for them? Their characters’ relationship is central to Clouds, as Maria agrees to act onstage again in the work that made her famous.
In that play, Maloja Snake, she portrayed a teenage intern named Sigrid who seduced, abandoned and devastated her 40-something boss, Helena. Only, now, Maria agrees to play Helena, a role she detested a quarter century ago for being an emotional weakling.
Her Sigrid? A Hollywood starlet named Jo-Ann (Chloë Grace Moretz), as famous for starring in slick, brain-dead sci-fi flicks as for grainy TMZ footage of her wild-child assaults on paparazzi.
First seen in clips that the fascinated, appalled Maria googles on her iPad, Moretz doesn’t appear in-the-flesh in the film until the second half. When she arrives, Moretz skillfully treads the line between self-conscious composure, as she flatters her legendary costar, and the kind of entitled bratdom that comes from life in a red-carpeted cocoon.
But the film’s main focus remains on Maria and Valentine. A chunk of Clouds unfolds in Wilhelm’s chalet, which the writer’s widow Rosa (Angela Winkler, long ago of The Tin Drum) lets Maria and Valentine live in prior to official rehearsals in London.
Reading Sigrid’s part, Valentine feeds Maria lines from the script, and Maria has to learn the new role while overcoming her revulsion for the character — and coming to terms with now being on the other side of the looking glass in an entertainment industry that denigrates older actresses.
Ageism isn’t the burning thesis here. Assayas doesn’t make films that verge on agitprop. While Clouds, in its focus on the actor/protégée and actor/nonactor relationship, recalls the setups of All About Eve and Persona, it does so only glancingly, playfully. Lovers of the film-publicity machinery and of what it takes to put together a stage production will have a good time here. For others, the center of the movie will just seem a whole lot of talk.
Then there’s the last act. Near the end, the movie springs a surprise that goes unexplained. Assayas leaves it to the viewer to interpret it as mystically or as matter-of-factly as he wishes to. Either way, the plot turn leaves a hole in the final 20 minutes that makes the movie simply end rather than come to a completely satisfying conclusion.
That’s not an unusual strategy for the writer-director, and his wide-ranging work is always worth seeking out. Clouds is worth seeing for movie and theater lovers, and anyone else who wants to witness the alchemy that happens between a couple of actors like Binoche and Stewart, playing together at peak performance.
Clouds of Sils Maria. With Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz. Written and directed by Olivier Assayas. In English and other languages, with subtitles. Rated R. 124 minutes. At the Tara.