Like Bergman and Antonioni, Olivier Assayas focuses on the experience of women, as in his latest, Clouds of Sils Maria.By Christos Tsiolkas.
Binoche and Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria
There is an interesting tension in the films of Olivier Assayas between a romanticism centred on his love of classical cinema and the desire to challenge the tropes and seductions of this classicism. As in the work of so many French directors, the boundary between the filmmaker and the critic remains fluid, the demands of being a narrative storyteller often in conflict with the desire to interrogate the language of cinema itself. The confident optimism of the early Nouvelle Vague, and then its fracturing into the partisan radical aesthetics of the post-Mai 68 period, casts a long shadow over his work, and over the films of his contemporaries, such as Catherine Breillat or Gasper Noé. But Assayas’s weakest films have been those that privilege radical formalism, as in Demonlover, a film that seems to perversely undercut the instinctive warmth he brings to his best work: the delirious celebration of movie-making that is Irma Vep, or the tender depiction of bourgeois family life in Summer Hours.
This tension is still at play in his most recent film, Clouds of Sils Maria, but for the most part his cerebral yearnings and his palpable emotional investment in performance and the art of film are kept in a sure-footed balance. The film’s success resides in the performances given by Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart. These two smart, capable and mesmerising actors are not going to let intellectual conceits undermine them.
Binoche plays Maria Enders, a successful theatre and movie actress now entering her 40s. Stewart plays Valentine, her young American personal assistant. The film begins with them on a train bound for Zurich, where Maria is to accept an honorary award for the playwright and film director Wilhelm Melchior. These early scenes on the train are both funny and acerbic, the vanities and insecurities of the actress expertly managed and assuaged by her dynamic assistant: Valentine is constantly on her multiple phones, on her laptop and iPad, intercepting requests for Maria that range from the desperate to the ridiculous. But while on the train they receive news that Melchior has died.
Arriving in Zurich, Valentine urges Maria to meet with an up-and-coming director, Klaus Diesterweg (played by Lars Eidinger), who wants to restage Melchior’s play Maloja Snake, the drama that first shot Maria to fame more than 20 years ago. But instead of playing the ingenue Sigrid, she is to be cast in the role of Helena, the older woman that Sigrid first seduces and then destroys. In Diesterweg’s reimagining of the play the role of Sigrid is to be given to Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young Hollywood actress most famous for getting drunk and punching out a police officer. At first Maria is resistant, fearful of a role that reveals much of her terrors and insecurities about ageing, but with the gentle if determined encouragement of Valentine, she finally accepts. This acceptance begins the second act of the film, with Maria and Valentine in a house in the Swiss Alps, preparing for rehearsals of the play.
As any film lover will glean from reading the synopsis, Clouds of Sils Maria can in part be understood as a homage to one of the great Hollywood films about performance, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve. The long section set in the Swiss town of Sils Maria, with Maria and Valentine rehearsing the play, their real-life personas becoming inseparable from the roles of Sigrid and Helena, are the most riveting and dynamic scenes in the film. Initially, in the Zurich section, I was put off by the girlish tones in Binoche’s English accent. But when she is alone with Valentine this girlishness drops away and Binoche is fierce in exploring Maria’s fears of encroaching middle age, that awful sense of an actor losing the trust and loyalty of an audience. It is clear that Maria’s tone changes when she is around men, that the affectation masks her anxiety that any signalling of her real age means a loss of currency in the male-dominated world of the arts. All About Eve also dealt with the potent fears of the ageing actress, but released in 1950, the Hollywood film undermined its critique of sexism by valorising heterosexual marriage as the more important aspiration for the female artist. Assayas countenances no such cop-out. Maria cannot vanquish age but it is clear that her commitment to her craft as performer will be ongoing.
Binoche has become one of the most accomplished screen actors, and our knowledge of her varied career on-screen, in both Anglophone and French cinema, but also in her determination to work with auteur filmmakers across the globe, invests her performance with gravity even when the film is slyly ridiculing the excesses of celebrity culture. Kristen Stewart, who came to prominence in the Twilight series, is astonishing in the role of Valentine, her intelligent choices and subtlety as an actor equal to Binoche. Female performance has been central to Assayas’s work since his beginnings as a director, and he grants his female leads the space and the freedom to shape and embody their characters. A cruel director could have had us laughing derisively at Maria’s self-centredness, might have betrayed the camaraderie between the two women by overdramatising the perversity that is an inevitable part of a relationship that is both emotional and professional, one in which power relations are strictly demarcated but emotionally promiscuous. It is not that Assayas is blind to such possibilities, but he doesn’t exploit these relationships, and, more importantly, he doesn’t exploit his actors.
It is not only All About Eve that a viewer recalls while watching Clouds of Sils Maria. There is the constant spectre of Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece, Persona, there are borrowings from Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, and also from Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, particularly in the use of theatrical titles – acts one and two, an epilogue – to punctuate the film.
It is clear why Assayas is referencing these filmmakers: all three are centrally concerned with the representation of women on-screen, and all three have worked and reworked explorations that, for better or worse, equate the feminine with inspiration. Both Antonioni and Bergman worked towards a filmmaking practice that blurred the distinctions of the theatrical and the cinematic, and von Trier too shares this obsession. The self-conscious references to these filmmakers never sink the film but they also are never fully integrated. Unfortunately, too often, they reveal Assayas’s weaknesses as a filmmaker. For example, he doesn’t have Bergman’s flair for dreamlike imagery; a pivotal moment of Valentine’s disintegration of self, scored to Primal Scream’s “Kowalski”, is amateurish and visually ugly. Clouds of Sils Maria remains strong and compelling as long as Binoche and Stewart are on-screen together, and as long as the relationship between them remains coherent. But that doesn’t seem to satisfy Assayas. It is as if he wishes to introduce jarring formal dissonance through editing and ellipses in order to demonstrate that the intellectual underpinnings of his movie are superior to the mere story.
Sils Maria is where Nietzsche wrote some of his most revolutionary works, and the Maloja Snake is a naturally occurring phenomenon in the Swiss Alps that seems to have entranced generations of romantics, a long, low-lying serpent of cloud that slowly winds through the valley. By placing his characters against such an imposing and metaphorically overloaded landscape, is Assayas trying to suggest something about how the elemental diminishes the human? Or is he posing questions about the transformative potential of artistic will? His intent remains unclear and though they are not uninteresting questions they are not as absorbing as the dilemma of how an actress braves the battles of age and commerce and the bad faith of adulation. This is what I mean by Assayas not trusting his instincts: Maria’s struggle has cogency and it has a real power.
I don’t think that Assayas is a radical filmmaker, but I don’t think he needs to be. However, his filmography and his writings on cinema indicate that the issue of what constitutes radical art remains potent for him. This is still a vexing concern for his fellow filmmakers, and also for French literature and for French theatre. The danger is when those concerns become paralysing, as I think they have for the contemporary French novel. When Assayas is at his best, which for me means his most humane and most direct, his is an exceptionally lyrical cinema. When Binoche and Stewart are on-screen together in Clouds of Sils Maria, it is magical. He’s already proved he is a terrific filmmaker; who cares if he’s a great critic?
• THEATRE The House on the Lake
SBW Stables Theatre, Sydney, May 15-June 20
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 9, 2015 as "All about Eves". Subscribe here.