In a recent interview with Cahiers du Cinéma’s current editor, Stéphane Delorme, he said “French cinema has produced extraordinary films but [is] in a fallow period now, despite certain filmmakers who stand out.” I certainly don’t have the proximity to French cinema that Delorme does, but I definitely see where he’s coming from. France still probably makes more great movies per capita than any other country in Europe but there isn’t really a unifying drive behind their best auteurs right now. The filmmakers at the forefront of French cinema like Jacques Audiard, Abdellatif Kechiche, and Arnaud Desplechin have all made some damn good movies, but they aren’t necessarily kicking down the cinematic doors and turning over the tables. Even when a particularly daring French film like Holy Motors comes along it often feels more like an isolated voice in the wild than like a call to arms that will be readily followed by the country’s national cinema. No director seems to exemplify this generation of French auteurs quite like Olivier Assayas, a filmmaker who at this stage in his career makes some really great and artistic films but who maybe isn’t out start a revolution.
Assayas’ latest film is a predominantly English-language production called Clouds of Sils Maria and is about the day to day life of a prominent European actress named Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche). Enders is a movie star of sorts and apparently just finished an arc in a series of superhero movies, but she first became famous as a stage actress. As the film begins she’s traveling to Zurich to present an award to a playwright named Wilhelm Melchior, who penned the role that made her famous in a play called “Maloja Snake.” This award presentation takes on a new tenor when its revealed that Melchior has passed away. At the event of the melancholy tribute/wake she’s approached by an up and coming young director named Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger) who wants Enders to star in a revival of “Maloja Snake,” this time playing a different role, with a hot young actress named Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz) taking up the role that made Enders famous twenty years ago. Enders reluctantly accepts the role and retreats to the titular town in a hilly region of Switzerland along with her faithful assistant Valerie (Kristen Stewart) to prepare for the role.
Generally when “backstage” movies like this are made the “film within the film” or the “play within the film” doesn’t really matter very much but here it does. “Maloja Snake” is a fictional play but over the course of the film we get a pretty good idea of what it’s about: a middle aged business executive who has an affair with a young assistant and is driven to suicide when this younger woman spurns her affection later on. This matters because the play seems to mirror a number of the themes of the film, specifically what it means to age (especially among women), how generations interact with one another, and what it means to be both an employee and a friend. Maria Enders is ultimately the main character here, but central to the film is the rather fascinating relationship between her and her assistant Valerie. Movies about assistants like this are usually of the bitter Swimming With Sharks and The Devil Wears Prada variety, but the relationship between Enders and Valerie seems remarkably friendly, almost to the point of being unprofessional.
There is no real suggestion here that there is any sexual bond between Enders and Valerie like there was for the characters in the play, but it’s certainly no coincidence that the play at the center of this film is also about a relationship between a mentor and a mentee. In fact, when the two are rehearsing scenes from the play in some of the later scenes it becomes oddly difficult to tell when they’re merely reciting dialogue from the play and when they’re simply talking amongst themselves. Part of this is because Valerie seems, at least superficially, to be a rather odd match for this job. She’s an American, she dresses casually, has a vaguely punkish haircut, and speaks freely. She’s a highly independent person who doesn’t seem overly fearful of “speaking truth to power” around her boss and in this way seems to mirror the assistant character from the play, albeit with much more positive attributes. That Enders would have an assistant like this might not be a coincidence, it’s possible that she’s unconsciously building her life to mirror the play that she’s become so readily identified with and has surrounded herself with people who remind her of her younger self.
This is in part a film about showbiz and in some ways it almost feels like a more chilled out European version of Birdman. Both films are about aging actors and both focus on said actor’s responses to the modern media environment. Neither Maria Enders nor Riggan Thomson are very fond of the “twittersphere” and both lament Hollywood’s current obsession with effects driven blockbusters, but the tone is very different here. Where Thomson was openly angry about these 21st century trends and actively resisted them, Enders is a bit more resigned to the current state of things. This might be because she’s less invested in the Hollywood system than Thompson is but it may also be because she has a more mature approach to aging even as she’s conflicted about it. Aside from that the two movies are pretty different , especially on a visual level.
As far as I can tell Olivier Assayas doesn’t seem to have a particularly distinct visual signature for his films but he does know how to shoot a movie with a sort of effortless skill and he also knows the value of a good location. Here he uses this remote Swiss location to really give the film a different vibe from what we usually see. I’m a little less enthusiastic about the film’s editing, which has an odd tendency to fade to black at odd moments (not really sure what Assayas was going for with that) but otherwise this is a very nicely crafted film. The movie also has a somewhat curious ending which does a good job of wrapping up Enders arc but also sort of abandons another character in an interesting if somewhat disappointing fashion. I’m still not quite sure what to think about that and will have to ponder it for a while, but otherwise I found this to be a pretty engrossing movie and a really nice palate cleanser after all the summer blockbusters I’ve been watching recently.
**** out of Four