Juliette Binoche plays the experienced, globally recognised actress Maria Enders, who is on her way to Switzerland with her assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart) to make a speech at a celebratory dinner of a former colleague, who had directed her in her breakthrough role on stage 20 years earlier. However en route they are met with the news that the man himself has passed away, turning this entire event into a rather solemn one, taking on the form of a wake. It is there Enders is approached with the idea of tackling that very same play that made her famous yet again – except this time, rather than play the alluring young girl Sigrid – a role now going to American superstar Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), she is to play the older, more ambiguous part of Helena. Deliberating anxiously, Enders agrees to take on the project, confronting a role that is unsettlingly reflective of herself, and a departure from the big blockbusters she had recently undertaken.
Binoche plays Enders with a subtlety, as despite her inclination to be a diva at times, she remains very human and relatable, in spite of her eminence and celebrity status. There’s also a distinctively understated turn for Stewart, who excels in the role of Valentine, while the actresses’ share a palpable chemistry, which is essential in this picture working, given it’s as much of a study of their relationship than anything else, as the dynamic between them shadows that of those in the play. Through their conversations, the viewer is able to interpret and understand the text too, as they rehearse together, blurring the line between reality and fiction as we’re often unsure if they’re merely talking to one another, or practising a scene.
It does help to have actors playing actors and assistants, as there is a knowing glint behind their eyes, as these people they play are evidently based on people they’ve met a million times before, and it impacts their performances accordingly. That being said, and it’s of no fault to the actress, but Moretz’s Ellie does take the audience out of the story somewhat, as it’s not nearly as nuanced, and far more exaggerated and theatrical. The staged, faux chat shows become a little gimmicky too, as we steer carelessly away from the more naturalistic elements. Assayas is frustratingly inconsistent in the world he has created too, as while the majority of actors and directors that feature are all made up, every now and then a real celebrity is alluded too. Whether it be a comment about Lindsay Lohan or Harrison Ford, it becomes harder to abide by this fictional universe when we mix between the two.
Though an over-the-top take on the industry, Clouds of Sils Maria remains easy to invest in, as it plays so heavily on the more candid, intimate moments – the lonely nights back in the hotel room, the rehearsals at home. It may be a heightened take on reality, but provides an intriguing insight into the life of a movie star nonetheless. The setting – evidently a vital component given the film’s title derives from it – works perfectly too, as despite being set in the crazy, madcap world of show business, this narrative takes place against the placid tranquility of the Alps, forming a contrast that makes for an accomplished, absorbing feature.