Clouds of Sils Maria cheats, tricks, and blindsides its audience, but this is only a good thing in director Olivier Assayas’ hands; his latest movie represents cinema in, many ways, its purest form.
Juliette Binoche plays Maria, an ageing actor whose career is in flux. Having severed herself from Hollywood, she seeks something more fulfilling – and as chance happens, an opportunity presents itself when the theatre and film director who boosted Maria’s career is found dead, and a swanky new director swoops in and plans to re-stage the play that made her – but with Maria as an older character, and with bright new upstart Jo-Ann (Chloë Grace Moretz) in Maria’s original – and much younger – role. Following her (nearly) every step of the way is Maria’s loyal PA and friend Valentine (Kristen Stewart), keeping both their lives delicately balanced through the emotional tumult of having to revisit the past.
Many of Clouds of Sils Maria’s sunburnt frames gracefully dissolve into one another, or frequently fade to black, making it apparent that the movie is attempting to hide something from us. As intellectual types sit in dimmed rooms waxing pretentious about art, and an orchestra bellows out Pachelbel’s Canon as if from behind a massive, unseen curtain (most likely the cinema screen itself), the movie revels in its gentle build-up, and constructs a beguiling, deeply affecting treatise on the self when clashing with performance. It’s a film that is as structurally bold as the performances are superb (Binoche, Stewart and Moretz all shine), and yet there is something about the picture that feels as if it will always be hidden from us, never providing a navigable architecture to its mysteries like most cerebral brain teasers. Clouds of Sils Maria’s enigmas go much deeper than that – so deep that this may rapidly become a classic of modern cinema. We just may not be able to see it yet.