Clouds of Sils Maria ★★★★

Like the metaphoric serpentine formation inferred by its title, Clouds of Sils Maria winds its way through an alluring valley between opposite sides of film production politics, female celebrity, and professional/personal boundaries. But like the rest of Olivier Assayas’ elegant career, it’s still devoted to the practical steps of a mundane process, and finding the cumulative effects of what characters realize along that path. It was liquidating an intimidating estate in Summer Hours, attempting to organize a misplaced revolution in Something in the Air, and particularly literal with his latest, it’s the day-to-day administration of an aging actress’ career.

Abruptly opening in the midst of Kristen Stewart’s multi-mobile juggling act on a moving train, we’re introduced to Valentine, the calm and cool assistant tasked with prioritizing the constant intrusion of industry obligations and attorneys for Maria Enders, a fictional actress equal to the caliber and renown of the real-life Juliette Binoche. Maria sits nervously atop the verge of harsh reckonings, with age and the unwelcome perspective brought by the sudden death of her beloved playwright friend; but more tellingly, with the double-edged opportunity to now embody his Helena, the older female character in a destructive love affair with the younger female character she first played twenty years ago. Maria was once Sigrid on stage and in real life, a young girl holding all the cards in a career-defining role that's now a vaporizing idea of herself that’s haunting daily script readings with Valentine, both women isolated in the idyllic Swiss Alps. This mildly aggressive, sometimes sweet, and fascinatingly reflexive retreat makes the bulk of Clouds of Sils Maria, operating much like a polished filmic equivalent to the modernized stage revival Maria is reluctantly rehearsing. It’s at curious odds with the jarring, recurring fades to black in the film’s first twenty minutes and in the “Epilogue” bookending the film, fade-outs keeping phone calls, travel arrangements, photo shoots and private admissions as smaller pieces that deny us visual confirmation of what's often the fruit of Valentine’s labor.

Stewart has never been better, even if I hesitate to call her performance intrinsically great as it is more so by contrast, for Assayas is clever enough to situate her in tutorial servitude of someone far more seasoned and confident. Here, I’m strictly speaking of Binoche, for Maria is nothing if not insecure, childishly obstinate, and victim to comparative gossip. Which is to say, I kind of adore her, her hilariously condescending tendencies and all. Their dynamic isn't unlike Helena and Sigrid and it evokes the enthralling identity crises that Bergman dreamed of. But Assayas is far too cerebral and light on his feet to carry a similar existential weight, and it’s not until the final scenes as Maria preps for her approaching first performance that Valentine’s work is suddenly grasped and valued. Assayas won’t give us the pleasure of Maria’s opening night as Helena, but his final cut to black from her poised expression as she awaits the curtain's rise does seem to instead give Valentine the satisfaction of a job well done, even if she’s the one who ends up disappearing into thin air.

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