In this richly satisfying film about age and art, a battle of wills over a new production of a classic play becomes a Rorschach test for two women’s friendship. It’s another subtext-laden drama from Olivier Assayas, whose best work has dug into the simmering tensions of long-term relationships and come up with melodramatic gold. Clouds of Sils Maria won’t be counted among his greater achievements like Summer Hours. But it’s a return to form for a director whose more recent films (Carlos, Something in the Air) have been packed with energy but lacking heft.
Maria Enders, a veteran actress of a certain age (Juliette Binoche), is taking a train to the mountains of Switzerland for a tribute to a revered writer whose play Maloja Snake, a psychosexual battle of wills between a younger and older woman, launched her career decades earlier. On the way there, she discovers the writer has died. At the same time, Maria’s nervy young assistant Val (Kristen Stewart), is pestering her to listen to an up-and-coming theater director who wants to mount a new production of the play, only with Maria now in the elder role of Helena. The role of the destructive young Sigrid would go to Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz), a teenage firecracker whose TMZ exploits get almost as much press as her roles in comic-book blockbuster films. In short, every vulnerability Maria has ever felt about her talents, her age, her place in the industry, are about to be dragged into the light.
It’s a vulnerable time for Maria, who looks done with the whole business. Binoche plays Maria as both exhausted with having to prove herself all the time and yet is anxious to do so. Maria grumps to Val that she’s not interested in being in the new X-Men film, as she’s “sick of hanging from wires.” Val doesn’t understand Maria’s reluctance, as the opportunity seems the perfect way to come full-circle. As they hole up in the writer’s Swiss chalet to run lines, joking nervously about his ghost watching over them, Assayas starts pinpointing deeper currents than just nervousness. It doesn’t take long for the tensions inherent in the play to be mirrored in Maria and Val’s personal life.
There is every opportunity for Assayas to take this in a cheaper direction. But he never does, focusing instead on running arguments about power, desire, artifice, and cruelty. There are certainly purposeful echoes here of hothouse, inside-out, binary inter-female theatrical dramas like Persona and All About Eve. But rather than turn Maria into some sad queen on the verge of being deposed by a bitchy young upstart — see the humiliating way Julianne Moore was made to play this kind of role in Maps to the Stars — Assayas takes a looser and more compassionate tack. She and Val spar over the boundaries of their relationship, like business associates who have grown just a little too close. The personal keeps bleeding into the professional, with unspoken jealousies and the hint of romantic attraction always there in the background. Maria bickers with Val over every little detail of their lives, while Val implies that her boss (like many regal figures) has become too jealous of her time and attention. In this environment, every fraught scene from the play becomes an x-ray of their time together, another piece of kindling lit in the conflagration that seems to be just around the corner.
Assayas spins out this scenario for perhaps too long in the finale, letting it all drift to an end in a beautiful and achy but tenuous way like the natural phenomenon of the river-like “snake” clouds that pour through the mountain valley where most of the story is set. The film is saved by a number of factors. Chief among them are Binoche and Stewart’s finely calibrated performances, which are tightly focused and yet loose enough to let scenes flow from easy humor to underhanded sniping and back again without whipsawing the audience. Moritz is more of a cipher, her character only becoming a real factor in the film’s final stretch, and not making any great impression. But if the film doesn’t end with a bang, it concludes with a few hard-won truths about the hard realities of fame and the march of time. That’s nothing to dismiss.