The camera tracks across an elaborate set, large glass panels breaking up the stage into a series of chic, modernist-style offices. It comes to rest on a stunningly beautiful middle-aged woman, her solitude starkly apparent.
She has a half-smile on her face, turned towards camera as though expectant. And yet there is something profoundly sad about the smile too, an overarching sense of the melancholic, suggesting that this is perhaps the end for her.
Indeed, it is – the lights dim, and the play – and the film within which the play is being staged, Olivier Assayas’ new film The Clouds of Sils Maria – comes to an end.
There is an elegiac stillness to this image and ending, a quality that resonates throughout the film at large. The narrative follows ageing movie star Maria Enders’ (Juliette Binoche) return to the theatre to star in Maloja Snake, a play written by her recently-deceased friend and mentor Wilhelm Melchior.
Maria has been cast as Helena, a middle-aged professional woman who has an affair with young employee, Sigrid, before being driven to suicide by Sigrid’s disregard. Maria and personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) move into Melchior’s house in the Swiss Alps in preparation for Maria’s return to the stage.
Of course, Maria’s star is fading. In her youth she played Sigrid, a role to which she owes her fame and fortune, and now she is playing the older woman. The sense of her generally “untimely” relationship with the zeitgeist is epitomised through her bemusement at the media frenzy surrounding the brash American starlet Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz) who has been hired to play Sigrid.
Indirect gestures are made to the parallels between the narratives of The Clouds of Sils Maria and Maloja Snake. Maria has a close working relationship and friendship with Valentine, and we suspect throughout the film that her dependence on Valentine is driven in at least some measure by desire.
At a thematic level, the strength of Assayas’ film, which he wrote as well as directed, resides in its understated examination of human life in the new media age. While not engaging as explicitly with the technologisation of the social as recent films such as Her (2013), Spring Breakers (2012), or Gamer (2009), a similar concern for the position of the human in a world dominated by the image – the “Society of the Spectacle” theorised by Guy Debord in 1967 – undergirds The Clouds of Sils Maria.
This is woven into a deft but similarly understated exploration of the relationship between old and new art forms and subjectivities. There is a wonderfully pointed moment in the film when Maria, standard-bearer of the “old,” comments that contemporary artists must also be PR experts.
At the same time, the film features several discussions of aesthetics that are at best dull and at worst acutely irritating. Maria and Valentine’s discourses frequently devolve into weightless observations about the relationship between art and life. Sequences involving hotshot theatre director Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger) feature gems of inanity such as “each theatre-goer brings their own subjectivity to the performance”.
The film similarly attempts to raise provocative questions through a sense of dynamic movement between the play within the film and the film itself, but this all comes across as rather unfocused and uninteresting.
The barbs at Hollywood cinema – CIA films, superhero films, and so on – seem particularly shallow, and one gets the distinct impression that Assayas’ film thinks it is far more profound than the Hollywood product at which it pokes fun (“this one’s about art, man”). Essentially, it is just another mass mediated spectacle for popular consumption, even if it is targeted at international film festival audiences rather than teenage boys. Its “target audience” may be the kind of people who say, without any sense of the obtuseness of the statement, that they “like foreign films,” but they are a “target audience” nonetheless.
The film’s sophomoric musings notwithstanding, one derives a great deal of pleasure from watching the film’s beautiful images of people and landscapes.
Sils Maria – the fact Nietzsche spent summers here for a couple of years is perhaps meant to be significant – is beautifully shot by Yorick Le Saux.
Binoche’s overwhelming beauty dominates every scene, even if her acting ability is barely stretched by the scenes themselves. Her stature is wonderfully complemented by Stewart’s ethereality, with Stewart proving, once again, that her greatest quality as an actress is in fact her paradoxical lack of presence.
The brash physicality of Chloe Grace Moretz, who exudes an air of almost contemptuously American vitality, marks a suitably affective contrast to the presence of Binoche, even if Jo-Ann Ellis is a thankless caricature of a fame-hungry starlet. It is a film about stardom, and people will see it for its stars; the fact that each will appeal to a different demographic will only enrich the coffers of Assayas et al.
The Clouds of Sils Maria is a mildly interesting rumination on the passing of time, featuring great actresses and picturesque locations. If one wants a provocative and thoughtful discussion of aesthetics and the relationship between art and life, though, one should read philosophy instead – or, better yet, Hamlet.
The Clouds of Sils Maria opens in Australia today.