French director Olivier Assayas likes his leading ladies unpredictable and punk, crafting wild pipe-bomb thrillers to suit the feral energy of muses such as Maggie Cheung (“Irma Vep”), Connie Nielsen (“Demonlover”) and Asia Argento (“Boarding Gate”). But does he really understand women? After collaborating with Assayas on 2008’s perfect, albeit ultra-safe “Summer Hours,” actress Juliette Binoche challenged the director to write a part that delved into genuine female experience. Though deceptively casual on its surface, “Clouds of Sils Maria” marks his daring rejoinder, a multi-layered, femme-driven meta-fiction that pushes all involved — including next-gen starlets Kristen Stewart and Chloe Grace Moretz — to new heights.
Binoche plays Maria Enders, a 40-ish movie star approached about appearing in a fresh staging of the play “Maloja Snake,” a film adaptation of which launched her career two decades earlier. This time, she’s being asked to interpret the older role — a burnt-out, middle-aged businesswoman manipulated by her young female assistant in a daring lesbian dynamic. Maria has always identified with the other character, the one she played at age 20, whereas the role of the has-been is haunted by her previous co-star, who died in a car accident a year after they shot the movie.
All performers are superstitious to some degree, which supports those who choose to read “Sils Maria” as a ghost story of sorts. Certainly, its principal theme is the passage of time, which seems to affect actors more intensely than anyone else on Earth — especially female ones, who are typically put out to pasture early. Nearly 30 years ago, Assayas co-wrote Binoche’s first starring role in Andre Techine’s “Rendez-vous,” and now, just as Marie feels threatened trading places with a hot young up-and-comer, Binoche has been asked to star opposite an actress far more consistent with Assayas’ “type.”
As the film opens, Maria is traveling with her assistant Val (Stewart) to accept an award on behalf of her close friend and mentor, playwright Wilhelm Melchior (a provocateur loosely inspired by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” echoes below the surface here). En route, while dealing with the particulars of her in-progress divorce, Marie receives word that Melchior has died, dredging up an unpleasant figure from her past, an old co-star named Henryk Wald (Hanns Zischler) whose stage-hoggy desperation provides a horrifying glimpse into where her own career could be headed.
For this and her myriad other insecurities, Marie has Val, the hyper-reliable young woman who serves as her minder, mother, therapist and rehearsal partner. It is Val who talks her nervous boss into doing the “Maloja Snake” revival, dragging Marie to a studio-produced superhero movie just to see Jo-Ann Ellis (Moretz), the edgy young actress tapped to play the other part.
Running lines from the play, Marie and Val may as well be describing their own sexually charged codependency, so perversely does the dialogue fit the pair’s own increasingly unhealthy dynamic. At times, Val excuses herself to visit a photographer boyfriend (although a weird mountain-driving montage suggests she may simply need to get away when the connection becomes too intense), until finally, she seems to disappear altogether, just one of the many mysteries woven into this rich and tantalizingly open-ended psychological study.
Moretz is fine, scoring laughs in a series of paparazzi-documented public outbursts, but not nearly as exciting in the fake “X-Men”-style movie-within-the-movie as Val believes. Ultimately, Stewart is the one who actually embodies what Binoche’s character most fears, countering the older actress’ more studied technique with the same spontaneous, agitated energy that makes her the most compellingly watchable American actress of her generation. Heightening the effect still further, Assayas uses the inescapable “baggage” of Stewart’s offscreen persona — from broken-marriage tabloid drama to a tossed-off eye-roll over the ridiculous rise in werewolf projects post-“Twilight” — to slyly alter the movie’s pH.
By sheer coincidence, “Clouds of Sils Maria” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in the same competition lineup as the Hollywood satire “Maps to the Stars.” Assayas’ bespoke homage to the art of acting feels like the antidote to David Cronenberg’s toxic takedown, which skewers Hollywood hangers-on and their screwed-up priorities. Though keenly satiric in its own right, “Sils Maria” loves actors and seeks to appreciate the strange alchemy they weave.
Having begun his career as a film critic, Assayas spent years judging performances in strictly technical terms. Actors don’t see their work like that, relying on intuition and emotional identification to connect with their characters in the most honest way possible. Moviegoers relate on yet another, more impressionistic level, affected by their mood, what they had for breakfast that morning and whatever personal experience they bring to the table. As the film acknowledges, “The text is like an object. It’s gonna change perspective based on where you’re standing.”
Given the amount of subjectivity involved, acting is by far the hardest aspect of filmmaking to evaluate. It’s easy enough to object when the work feels false, but so much of the process remains a mystery, and in trying to unlock its secrets, “Sils Maria” reaches for the stratosphere — which incidentally, is where most of the film takes place, high in the Swiss Alps, above the clouds. From this celestial vantage, Maria and Val are free to observe the real “Maloja Snake,” a seething meteorological formation that sends clouds winding serpent-like through a valley lined by mountains on either side.
In addition to documenting this spectacle afresh, Assayas unearths an old 1924 silent movie by German director Arnold Fanck, the sort of relic that makes one grateful someone thought to capture this mesmerizing phenomenon on film. Binoche leaves audiences with the same exhilarating feeling here — of having witnessed something precious and rare — answering the challenge of Assayas’ script by revealing a character incredibly close to her soul.