Examinations of Hollywood have been done to a point past death. For as long as Tinseltown has existed, it seems as if there has been movies about the ins and outs of the industry. In a sea of savage satires and aspirational tales, it's hard to make anything about this particular setting/subject that's fresh and exciting. But Clouds of Sils Maria, the newest film from French auteur Olivier Assayas, manages to do just that, by creating a story that's a conversation about Hollywood, but takes place a whole ocean away from the city of angels. It's a languid, melancholy film that cloisters itself away, then explores the itch that manifests from that isolation.
At the heart of this itch is Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), an aging international actress, known for her work on both the screen and stage. The film begins with her learning of the death of her mentor, Wilhelm Melchior, the man who wrote a play called Maloja Snake (which later became a film). Maria achieved breakout success for her role in both the play and film as Sigrid; a young, callous businesswoman who has a complicated and troubled relationship with Helena, her vulnerable older colleague. Though her career remained fruitful for a while, it's clear that Sigrid was Maria's defining role, and the well of new projects is beginning to dry up. When a prominent new theater director presents the idea of a modern version of Maloja Snake, this time with a now-aging Maria playing the role of Helena, she reluctantly accepts.
In the play, Sigrid and Helena's tempestuous relationship leads to an ambiguous ending for Helena, but one that could be easily be interpreted as a suicide. And in a grim matter of life imitating art, the actress who played opposite Maria during Maloja Snake's first run killed herself a year later. It's obvious that all of this, along with the recent death of Snake's creator, weighs on Maria. The act of taking up the role of Helena almost seems like a dare to herself, an ultimate acting test that she wants to see if she can pass. But as the reality of the part and the play begins to seep in, it becomes apparent that Maria is not at peace with this character, mostly because she's not at peace with herself. She's fighting her age and the possibility of her irrelevance, the latter of which is partially caused by her unwillingness to engage with various elements of modern culture, from Hollywood blockbusters to the entire internet.
Following Maria around Europe while she prepares for the revamped Maloja Snake is Valentine (Kristen Stewart), her young and dedicated personal assistant, on whom Maria depends an borderline toxic amount. Maria and Val's dynamic forms the backbone of the film with its endless fascinations and layers. It's a union that's part work relationship, part friendship, and part unspoken emotional tug of war. The ways in which those different parts swap in and blend together throughout Clouds is absolutely riveting. Binoche is characteristically wondrous as Maria, but it's Stewart who ends up stealing the show with an astonishing performance. In fact, it often feels like there's no performance at all, that Val is a real person and not just an assumed role. Stewart has been accused of being a charisma vacuum in the past, but here she pivots around those qualities to push out a serene naturalism that fits in nicely with the film's laconic rhythms.
Nobody will try to make the case that Clouds of Sils Maria is a subtle film. Clearly, the Maloja Snake (a meteorological phenomenon that causes a plume of fog to pass through the Alps) and Maloja Snake (the fictional play within the film) are symbolic of Maria, who seems reluctant to accept inevitabilities. The film itself could also be a meta-commentary on artists like Juliette Binoche and Olivier Assayas, both of whom have long since past the first act of their careers. Yet the lack of subtlety has a subtlety of its own. The play initially presents itself as being about the contrast between Maria and the up-and-coming Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Moretz), who has signed on to play the role Maria did when she was in her 20s, but then shifts to resemble shades of Maria and Val's relationship. That constantly coiling meta nature of the film leads to these rehearsal scenes between Maria and Val in the middle portion where it's hard to tell when they're pulling from the text of Maloja Snake and when they're pulling resentment and anxieties from their own hearts.
Save a few mesmerizing touches, Assayas keeps his direction unfussy, but he remains probing nonetheless. One of the crucial elements is that the movie doesn't take Maria's side on art and the modern age. Assayas smartly allows Stewart's character to be there to defend mainstream Hollywood films, so it doesn't seem like he's some grumpy old snob grousing about the current state of things. Instead, Clouds feels like Assayas is really trying to search within and have a conversation with himself about his career and the industry he's in. And he ends it on a daring ellipsis for himself and Maria. Maybe she'll finally embrace her age and accept the necessities involved in staying relevant, or maybe she'll disappear and never be heard from again, just like Helena at the end of Maloja Snake.