Age is a bitch. It makes you insecure. It makes you jealous. It makes you question your talents. It makes you wonder what the point of life is and if it’s going to end soon. One day, you’re going to be surrounded by younger and smarter people who do everything that you do, only faster and better. You’re going to feel depressed. You’re going to be angry and frustrated. All of these things are felt at a tenfold intensity by those who work in movies. The film industry, as rich as it can make you, gives you a shelf life of a handful of years. This is particularly true for actresses. Male actors could go on to be leading heroes for decades – look at the Khans in our own industry. Female actors don’t last very long – look at the Khans’ contemporaries. The passage of time in the film industry has seldom been captured in cinema and director Oliver Assayas does this beautifully in Clouds of Sils Maria.
Everything about Clouds of Sils Maria is meta. Juliette Binoche stars as Maria, an ageing French superstar. She became famous in her twenties for a role in a play, in which she played a secretary who seduces her boss only to abandon her. In the present, Maria has been cast in the movie adaptation of that same play, except this time around, Maria is the boss. She’s jealous of the younger actress, Jo-Ann (Chloe Moretz), who plays the role of the secretary and can only confide in her real life secretary, Valentine (Kristen Stewart).
Valentine is much more than just a secretary to her. With her, Maria rehearses scenes and conveniently the lines the two women deliver are relevant and apt for the dynamics between them. You’re never really sure whether they’re rehearsing or playing characters based on themselves - it’s a web of self-aware nudging and winking that is a giddy delight to watch. If that weren’t enough, the name of the play they’re rehearsing is “Majola Snake”, which refers to a pretty locale in the Swiss Alps, where clouds form at a particular time and drift away like a snake. Maria and Valentine run lines from the play while hiking across the Alps, trying to catch a glimpse of the cloud formation. They break off character and go skinny-dipping into a lake as if they’re long lost lovers.
Assayas’s ability to transition in and out of reality and fiction is impressive and in that way Binoche’s role is reminiscent of her character in Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy. Although the metaphors are obvious, Assayas’s observations are delightful. Normally, a film on the life of a movie star would be rife with First World problems. Celebrities mostly come across as entitled windbags, but Assayas’s characters are wonderfully written and perfectly poised, with just enough cynicism to make you love the star in the movie. Then again, the star in question is Juliette Binoche playing herself, and she’s someone who is awfully difficult to hate.
What Assayas does deserve credit for is that he’s managed to extract a really great performance from Kristen Stewart, which until Clouds of Sils Maria would have been considered a cosmic impossibility. Assayas often satirizes the Hollywood system and takes a dig at how the charm of cinema and the acting craft is losing out to superhero blockbusters. The conversations are electric, particularly the exchanges between Binoche and Stewart about these crowdpleaser movies. Binoche struggles to find the merits of popcorn consumerism over the aesthetic joys of arthouse cinema. A hilarious sequence in which Jo-Aann is introduced involves Jo-Ann playing a mutant in an unintentionally funny science fiction drama. Jo-Ann happens to be a 19-year-old arrested for DUI and Maria can’t believe that someone as classless and scrappy as her could be even considered for a classic role. Maria also has trouble accepting that someone with no regard for the craft of acting can be a more famous actress than her. She is jealous of youth and so hates it, all the while secretly longing for it. One can’t help wondering if the whole film was born out of a conversation Assayas had with Binoche on an afternoon over tea.
(First published in Firstpost)