The layered complexity of Clouds of Sils Maria won't surprise those familiar with Olivier Assayas' previous work, especially given the critical hosannas the movie elicited on the festival circuit after its Cannes premiere, but the film miraculously exceeds even the loftiest expectations. Although the 60-year-old Assayas will likely remain a vital filmmaker for years to come, Clouds seems consciously designed as a grand summing up of his career: The film not only recasts elements of his first significant writing credit — André Téchiné's Rendez-vous (1985), in which Juliette Binoche plays a theater actress with a complicated romantic life — but also conflates the themes and preoccupations of two of his best films: the highly self-reflexive Irma Vep, a sly seriocomedy about a filmmaker's attempt to remake Louis Feuillade's silent serial Les vampires, and the ensemble drama Summer Hours, an elegiac work about a trio of siblings forced to confront the practical and emotional repercussions of their mother's imminent death.
In Clouds, Binoche again plays an actress, this time named Maria Enders, who's introduced en route to a Swiss film festival — the insistently rocking train immediately introducing the idea of unsettled transition — to accept a lifetime-achievement award on behalf of her mentor, Wilhelm Melchior, whose play and film The Maloja Snake launched her career twenty years previously. Before the award is presented, however, news of Melchior's unexpected death arrives, transforming the celebration into a gloom-enshrouded memorial. Further darkening Maria's mood — figurative black clouds continue to pile — she's approached to star in a theatrical revival of The Maloja Snake, but instead of essaying her original role, the young, cunning seductress Sigrid, she's asked to play Helena, the older businesswoman whose authority is undermined and life is unraveled by an obsessive love for her manipulative employee. Although she's now the appropriate age to play the role, Maria resists any identification with Helena, whom she regards as pathetically needy, and instead continues to see herself as the supremely confident Sigrid, a powerful and disruptive force.
Maria's reluctance to embrace the part isn't just a lack of empathy for Helena: She's concerned about acknowledging her advancing age — a dismayingly serious liability for female stars — and implicitly surrendering her place in defining the Zeitgeist. The young actress slated for Sigrid, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), has a thin résumé — a superhero movie — but an outsized presence in the culture: A Lindsay Lohan-style hot mess, Jo-Ann is omnipresent on social media and in the tabloids, and she's forever trailed by a buzzing swarm of paparazzi. Maria may disdainfully tsk-tsk Jo-Ann's seeming superficiality, but she regards this new It Girl with as much envy as contempt: Maria is accustomed to the picture's sharp center, not the out-of-focus margins of the frame.
Jo-Ann, however, is primarily a virtual presence through much of Clouds — though much discussed — and her image is carefully studied by Maria on the Web and the film screen, she doesn't physically manifest until the film's latter third, when her private behavior unexpectedly subverts her public persona as an unfettered wild child. Maria's key relationship is actually with Valentine (Kristin Stewart), her personal assistant, who serves not just as aide-de-camp — fielding phone calls and film offers, fetching coffee and cigarettes — but also as confidante and de facto (if faux) best friend. The dynamic between Maria and Val echoes Helena and Sigrid's push-pull for dominance and blurring of the professional and the personal, and although they're not lovers, the intimacy of their exchanges carries a distinct sexual charge. The parallels between the fictional and actual women become especially evident as Val runs lines with Maria as the actress preps for the play — Melchior's dialogue seems eerily reflective of their real-life exchanges and hidden feelings.
Clouds thoughtfully explores an array of subjects — work, aging, friendship, creativity — but it also provides a large dollop of gossipy amusement with its insider's view of movies. The clouds of the title offer such a rich metaphor that multiple interpretations are possible, but they perhaps refer most evocatively to the actresses the film features and celebrates: ever mutable, sometimes ominous, heartbreakingly beautiful and ultimately evanescent.— Cliff Froehlich