The camera keeps peeking over the stars’ shoulders in Clouds of Sils Maria, sneaking behind world-famous Juliette Binoche and the even more popular Kristen Stewart to reveal the world as these celebrities see it. Mostly, it turns out, they stare at the same dumb things as you or I: the screens of smartphones, tablets, and laptops.
Binoche (cast as a renowned actress, now in middle age, named Maria) and Stewart (playing Valentine, her young assistant and challenger) spend much of their time attending to the digital demands of lawyers and handlers; glancing at glowing displays of schedules and maps; and, with slightly guilty fascination or frank curiosity, poring over Internet gossip. Meanwhile, as they rattle along in trains or cars through the Swiss Alps, Maria and Valentine scarcely bother to look out the window—though the director, Olivier Assayas, periodically breaks away from these on-the-fly scenes to ponder wide-screen views of the mountains, which he rolls out to the stately accompaniment of Handel’s Xerxes.
Heady even by Assayas’s standards, Clouds of Sils Maria is a landscape film, a backstage drama, a comedy of manners (or the lack of them), and a hall of mirrors. Above all, though, it is a prolonged debate on the passage of time and the ceaseless rivalry of the generations. It ages Binoche before your eyes—one moment she’s made up for magazine-cover glory at a gala in Zurich, the next she’s scrubbed to the bone with her hair chopped off—then sets her arguing with a solemnly bespectacled Stewart about the relative merits of their contemporaries’ tastes, and the gains and losses that come with the years.
The latter topic is a matter of urgent professional concern. After two decades, Binoche’s Maria has agreed to appear again in the play that made her name when she was young—not, of course, as the script’s reckless, sexually irresistible temptress (the role with which she still identifies), but as her prey, an emotionally vulnerable older woman. Holed up in a borrowed house in the Alps, where she goes to prepare the role, Maria insists that it’s a humiliation, an obscenity, to make herself into such a dishrag. She doesn’t know why she signed on to do it. (But it’s obvious: The play’s author, whom she loved, has suddenly died, forcing her to confront her own mortality.) She will drop out, she declares, and with apparent perversity keeps plunging back in, again and again.
Paradoxically, it’s left to the lithe and fresh-faced Valentine to take up the cause of maturity, countering that the play’s older character chooses her own path—destructively, perhaps, but with a force and knowledge that are beyond the young. Valentine makes this case while helping Maria run her lines, reading her own part in a flat, matter-of-fact voice—which is the correct method but contrasts starkly with her boss’s full-throated histrionics, giving the younger woman an unsettling air of imperturbability. More troubling still, the lines that Valentine reads in rehearsal are those of the play’s superbly self-assured temptress.
Does this mean that the sexual dynamic between the play’s characters has seeped into the movie’s? Assayas prompts the question with almost nerdy studiousness and then, devilishly, makes the evidence ambiguous. He gives you only a glance through an open doorway (this time Maria is not looking at a digital screen, but at the ass of a sleeping Valentine), the passing touch of a hand, an awkward and quickly broken hug. Even so, when Maria repeatedly rejects the younger woman’s interpretation of the script, you sense that she’s trying to push away not only the ideas but Valentine herself. Sometimes overthrowing even the pretense of respect, Maria issues no more of a rebuttal than a gape-mouthed, head-tossing guffaw, which is worse than rude. It’s a way to claim the role of wild young thing for herself, while treating Valentine as the absurd fogy.
By now, you will have understood that if you intend to see Clouds of Sils Maria, you’d better drink two cups of coffee beforehand and be ready to take notes. Three cups, maybe—because, to make the scheme still more complicated, Assayas gives Valentine a double: Jo-Ann (Chloë Grace Moretz), the barely postpubescent star of Hollywood blockbusters and gossip websites, who will be going onstage with Maria as the play’s temptress.
She’s a wonderful character and wonderfully played by Moretz, this bit of dauntingly talented box-office bait, this cannily self-regulating emotional volcano. At first, she figures in the story from a distance, as a kind of game token in the contest between Maria and Valentine. Maria tries to belittle Jo-Ann in advance by dismissing her new 3-D science-fiction movie as, well, science fiction. In response, Valentine blurts out—or perhaps cruelly chooses this moment to assert—that Jo-Ann is her favorite actress. Then, almost as soon as Jo-Ann is physically present, she supplants Valentine and becomes Maria’s new challenger, without an ounce of the love and loyalty that Valentine had brought to the rivalry. As the action shifts to London and the play’s opening approaches, Maria at last steps into the spot she has been preparing for herself throughout Clouds of Sils Maria: a nightly place onstage, in full public view, facing off against heartless, triumphant youth.
Whether you care about Maria at this culminating moment will probably depend in large measure on whatever feelings for Binoche you’ve brought into the theater. For me, at least, and presumably for many other moviegoers, long familiarity with her work has bred affection and respect. And long familiarity with Assayas’s films has bred trust—which I confess to having needed to stay with Clouds of Sils Maria.
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It’s puzzling to see Assayas treat Valentine as more of a contrivance than a character—she doesn’t have one-tenth of Maria’s backstory—while making so little of Stewart’s persona compared with Binoche’s. Granted, there’s a thickness to Binoche’s screen image that Stewart hasn’t yet attained; but that shouldn’t make much difference to Assayas, who has always been a strikingly immediate director of stories about young people, from Cold Water (1994) through Something in the Air (2012). He loves to bring you close to their pulse and breath, shifting his camera as fast as they change emotions. Clouds of Sils Maria has some of that quickness, with those jostling over-the-shoulder shots; and yet I sensed no empathy with Valentine. Maybe Jo-Ann is a worthy opponent for Maria, but Valentine is not—and when she’s served her purpose, the film simply abandons her.
Even stranger, Assayas uncharacteristically slows his usual flight of sensations by overlaying them with the dead weight of a symbol—a vague, portentous, meteorological one at that. Not content to interrupt the plot now and then to show you grand views of the landscape, he hints at ominous meanings in the flow of clouds through a certain pass in the Alps. Maria ventures out at a critical moment to witness this phenomenon, known as the Maloja Snake. The play’s author died at a lookout point for it, and on top of that he titled his play (for no discernible reason) Maloja Snake. In case that’s not enough to impress you, Assayas shows you images—twice—from a silent-era documentary about these clouds.
My suspicion that the meaning of this symbol lies somewhere outside of Clouds of Sils Maria was confirmed when I read the closing credits and saw that this documentary had been made by Arnold Fanck.
He’s a very odd cinematic godfather for Maria. An originator of the peculiarly German genre of the mountain film, Fanck is known to movie history as the director who lifted the pathetic fallacy to unprecedented heights, depicting his characters’ emotions through avalanches, rockfalls, and Alpine storms. He is also remembered for giving Leni Riefenstahl her start, making pictures that harmonized nicely with the nature worship and blowhard sublimity of Nazism, and vacillating about whether to work for Goebbels. He resisted; he left Germany for a while; then he came back and joined the Nazis.
By bringing Fanck into Clouds of Sils Maria, however allusively, Assayas has introduced intimations of doom that have nothing to do with Maria’s struggles with life and art, aging and modern manners. You might not be able to identify the source, but you can sense these extraneous overtones, perhaps hearing them in another strangely dissonant note: the movie’s conspicuous excess of self-annihilation. I counted four versions of suicide in the story: achieved, attempted, implied, and imitated. That’s a lot of leaping into the void for a backstage drama with satirical excursions, but not, perhaps, for a film that uses the grandiose picturesque to signal—what? Something or other, underscored at the climax (God help me) with Pachelbel’s Canon.
And yet, as I said, I trust Assayas. After watching Clouds of Sils Maria twice, and taking greater pleasure in it the second time, I’m willing to entertain the possibility that the pomposities he’s laid onto the movie might be a warning, to himself as much as the audience. They remind him not to stray from the impossible task he’s set for himself out of love for Binoche: to immortalize her, but in the same gesture to record her cherished, living frailties.
There’s more than a hint of this ambition toward the end, when Maria accepts a visit from a young film director who says he wants her, and not Jo-Ann Ellis, for his new movie, because Maria is timeless. The director’s sincerity is manifest—but what does he mean? Is she timeless like the Alps, or perhaps a third-rate piece of classical music? Eternal like the elemental forces in an Arnold Fanck film? Abiding like the Third Reich? Set above ordinary human concerns, and outside of ordinary sympathy, like a Nietzschean superman, or the closest equivalent we have nowadays, a celebrity? Throughout Clouds of Sils Maria, Assayas flirts with these possibilities, and with the abyss that they open. Like any flirt, he sometimes stumbles over his own feet, to ridiculous effect.
But I think he rights himself, turning away from the dead end of the Absolute. Having raised up Binoche once more in full movie-star magnificence, he strips her down for the rest of the movie to self-doubt, anger, exasperation, fatigue, vanity, hunger, calculation, and mocking, railing humor. She’s perfect in them all.
Which is to say, Binoche on-screen has unquestionably become more than mortal—but not so much that Maria and Valentine need to stop fussing with their smartphones.
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The halls of justice gleam spaceship-white in Oregon, if you’re willing to believe True Story, and even the county lockups were designed by architects with a mania for flush-set glass and DuPont Corian. Magazine freelancers live in rustic lodges suitable for elk-hunting millionaires, and Felicity Jones, fresh from duties in the Hawking household, stands pertly by her latest man. It’s all very decorous, if not quite luxe, considering that the movie exists because of a hideous quadruple murder.
In December 2001, Christian Longo killed his wife and three small children and dumped their corpses off the Oregon coast. (Combining pathos with visual appeal, director Rupert Goold shows a teddy bear falling in slow motion, like an autumn leaf, onto the body of the youngest.) Longo then fled to Mexico, where he was captured and extradited to the United States to stand trial. This much is fact. It is also verifiable that at the time of his arrest, Longo was identifying himself as Michael Finkel, a reporter for The New York Times. By coincidence, the real Michael Finkel was just then about to be disgraced for having made up a composite character for an article published by The New York Times Magazine. Almost immediately after the Times sent him packing, as Finkel relates in the book that is the movie’s source, he received a phone call from a reporter in Oregon, asking for his reaction to being impersonated by an accused killer.
True Story dramatizes how, in the period before the trial, Finkel (Jonah Hill) and Longo (James Franco) formed a bond—call it symbiotic or parasitic, as you will—with Finkel getting a book contract based on Longo’s account of everything except the deaths, and Longo getting professional coaching on how to shape a narrative. This is the not-pretty heart of the movie. Hill, who has proved himself clever at both foul-mouthed aggression and meek neediness, shows you a Finkel who is ambitious to get back into print, proud to play the tough-minded reporter in front of a new audience, and all too quick to respond to Longo’s flattery. Franco, who can turn on the charm with any degree of ingenuousness or sleaze you like, keeps himself very still as Longo, playing out just enough vulnerability and sorrow to make you understand how Finkel could look for more under the surface. He ought to pay attention to the hard glare in Franco’s eyes at the suggestion that he’s lied—but it’s gone after half a second, and Finkel has already sold himself.
True Story never gets behind that glare. It does not pretend to penetrate Longo’s thoughts or motivations; but it does expose, unsparingly, the moral makeup of a success-driven professional whose misdeeds were arguably not so bad, until he tried to make up for them by collaborating with Longo. When the truth of the story at last sinks in, it’s not decorous at all—which is to the credit of Rupert Goold and True Story.