The history of cinema is littered with films plumbing the depths of personal identity and the moving line between reality and fiction. Ingmar Bergman’s 1996 classic Persona may not have been the first film to tackle it, but it is certainly among the most impactful, establishing so many of the tropes that have carried forth to the present day. The formula of Persona, that of two individuals, usually isolated in a setting with which at least one of them is unfamiliar, embroiled in actions and conversation that erode their individual senses of self, has become the gold standard, bubbling back up to the surface in recent films like Certified Copy, or Venus in Fur or this year’s The Duke of Burgundy. Olivier Assayas, the acclaimed French filmmaker of Irma Vep and Summer Hours and Carlos fame, has thrown his hat into this arena with Clouds of Sils Maria, bringing along Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart for the ride.
Binoche is the lead here, playing Maria, an actress aging gracefully into the twilight of her life, visiting the Swiss Alps to honor, and then abruptly eulogize, her reclusive mentor who kicked off her career casting her in a play of his featuring a torrid and contentious relationship between two women, one young and one old. Flanked by her loyal and stony personal assistant Valentine (Stewart), Maria must confront the sorrow of losing her friend with the prospect of returning to the play that made her famous, trading the role of the young firebrand for that of the older woman. Retreating into a friend’s house in Sils Maria, tucked into a gorgeous area of the Swiss Alps, Maria and Valentine drill lines and attempt to deprogram her memories of her past performances while researching her impending costar, the incendiary starlet with a tabloid social life Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz). As Maria delves deeper into her character, the lines between her life and her part begin to blur, complicating her sense of self and her relationship with Valentine. With the revival’s London debut on the horizon, Maria must tackle her fears and the insecurity of an industry passing her by.
Binoche slips comfortably into the skin of Maria, having already played a character somewhat along the same lines in the aforementioned Certified Copy. She has the poise of a woman raised on the stage, an actress who has cashed in her acclaim for lucrative roles in well-paying blockbusters. Her struggle is rooted in an unyielding desire to stay relevant, seeing her transition from the younger Sigrid to the older Helena as a capitulation. She is luxuriously dressed (the film was partially funded and heavily costumed by Chanel) and regal, all of it a feint to steer away from the turmoil she feels within, perhaps seeing herself as walking the path toward a Norma Desmond-like existence. Framed by Yorick Le Saux’s sumptuous filming of the Swiss Alps, Maria is alternately in full control and fraying around the edges, an entire life sculpted in part by this formative experience on the stage that has been taken from her and perverted by an interloper. And all of this is compounded by a desire to do right by her deceased mentor, and all of it is beautifully internalized by Binoche’s performance.
Stewart was the real story of the film coming into its American release; she made headlines last year when she became the first American actress to win a Cesar award (essentially France’s equivalent to the Oscars) for her supporting turn here, a bit of a surprise for those who only really knew her from the Twilight films. Stewart has such an odd energy on the screen, withdrawn and deadpan, her face buried in multiple cell phones as she juggles handling the particulars of Maria’s ongoing divorce proceedings with her career and working to keep her on a level head as the play’s premiere looms on the horizon. Her performance is most captivating precisely how much she gets out of what appears to be so little. She reads Maria’s sides with a disinterested monotone, dryly reciting stage directions as Binoche becomes more and more unhinged. It is a performance of a piece with Stewart’s previous work in films like Panic Room and Adventureland, but it has yet to get stale as long as she has good material to back her up. That is the case here, as she provides the perfect foil for Binoche’s struggle, especially as she becomes more enamored with the acting prowess of Jo-Ann, further fomenting Maria’s insecurities.
The relationship in Clouds of Sils Maria is what differentiates it; the principals of both Persona and Venus in Fur (and Certified Copy) are strangers when they meet, while Maria and Valentine have a well-established personal and professional rapport. It is one thing to watch perfect strangers take on identities more familiar than they are, but it is altogether another when the redefinition comes from those who are already intimately accustomed to each other. Its closest analogue in that respect would be The Duke of Burgundy, an early contender for film of the year. Assayas does not quite reach the ecstatic heights of Peter Strickland’s meditation on love, sex and control, but Clouds of Sils Maria, with its expert cinematography and wonderful performances from Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart, is a worthy entrant into this little corner of the film world.