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.