French filmmaker Olivier Assayas is celebrated for his complex and cerebral narratives. Having cast a pair of American It Girls (Kristen Stewart and Chloe Grace Moretz) in his latest, Clouds of Sils Maria seemed poised to be his most mainstream effort to date. But if you go in thinking that this will play into the typical rules of showbiz comedy, the third act will leave you scratching your head.
Internationally acclaimed actress Juliette Binoche stars as Maria Enders, an internationally acclaimed actress who’s latest job forces her to accept that her ingénue days are behind her. In a remounting of the play that made her a star decades ago, Maria is set to portray the “older woman,” a designation she fights against with every fiber of her being. Urging her to see the value in the play and her own age is Maria’s personal assistant Valentine (Stewart, in the role that won her the Cesar). In a remote mountainside retreat, the two women develop a relationship that is barbed with flirtation and jealously. Further complicating their dynamic is Jo-Ann Ellis (Moretz), the trainwreck of a starlet step into the part that launched Maria’s career.
With this setup, there’s lots of room for meta commentary on Hollywood and celebrity. Binoche’s character speaks for all the sexy actresses who’re being pushed out to pasture for newer models. Stewart has some fun with her own bad girl image in a monologue about the appeal of ingénues who give zero fucks. (It’s a deeply rewarding scene to watch, not just for its post-Twilight relevance, but also for the drama chops Stewart brings to the role). But it’s Moretz who gets to act out these starlet shenanigans of sex scandals, smug press appearances, and so much tabloid fodder.
It’s great terrain for rich drama and smart satire. But to be blunt, Assayas lost me once Stewart’s character inexplicably drops out of the narrative. Before this twist at the end of act two, I was intently invested in the tangled bond of Maria and Valentine, desperate to see where it would lead them. Theirs is a relationship both professional and personal, gnarled with mutual respect, resentment, and a tinge of lust. Maria envies Valentine’s nonchalance and youth, while Valentine grows frustrated that these very aspects of her give Maria excuse to think her naïve or even stupid. Scenes like these are the kinds actresses kill to be handed, and Binoche and Stewart execute them with grace and an intoxicating chemistry. But then, Stewart is gone. Just gone. And the movie trudges on without her.
As act three starts, I was left sprawling to make sense of her disappearance as well as how the narrative could go on in her absence. I’d lost the thread. I no longer knew what this movie was about. And scene after scene clunked along until an ending so abrupt I wondered for a moment if it was a projectionist’s mistake. Ultimately, I was left to wonder, ‘Is that all there is?’
Praise this film has been almost universal. On the level of its two lead performances, I understand that. (Moretz is fine and shows some growth as an actress, but lacks the screen presence and gravity of her co-stars.) But while I found its first hour and a half intriguing and darkly funny, the final act left me puzzled and annoyed. The setup seemed abandoned, with a new arc being offered in the final stretch. Having established a dynamic as strong as that of Binoche and Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria had me hooked, only to leave me hanging. I’ve heard it plays better on a second watch, but—to be perfectly honest—I’m not terribly interested in giving it that chance.
In the end, I’d say Clouds of Sils Maria is not the casual moviegoer. It is too abruptly cerebral to please. But if you’re an Assayas fan, you’ll likely be thrilled. If you’re a Stewart fan, you’ll want to see it to add to your evidence that she’s an undervalued actress. And if you think Binoche can do no wrong, her performance here will give you further reason for worship. Just don’t anticipate a jaunty showbiz story. Clouds of Sils Maria has a lot of thoughts on Hollywood, but little patience for its rules.