Clouds of Sils Maria Dir. Olivier Assayas

[IFC Films; 2015]

Styles: drama, movies about movies
Others: Irma Vep

Kristen Stewart has some beautifully “bad” tattoos. I really like them.

Thankfully, Olivier Assayas leaves them in clear sight throughout Clouds of Sils Maria, an appropriate move for a film and a director that are both obsessed with surfaces, the surface texture of her skin and the attendant cultural resonances of both her star power and the tattoos themselves forming focal points for a character that remains more or less a blank slate in terms of interiority. It’s also echoed in his career-long Michael Mann-aping love for shooting through and within mirrored surfaces, glass boxes, and gleaming metal, heavily featured here, in an impressive feat for a film set almost exclusively in the Swiss Alps. Assayas’ characters have always been mediated ones, glimpsed through cultural referents rather than psychologically clear — Irma Vep builds from cinematic antecedents, Carlos’ titular protagonist is a tangle of inconsistent geopolitical actions more than a person, Demonlover’s sexual fetishes are all hyper-stylized surfaces that point towards inner states without illuminating them, etc etc.

(I’ve always liked the phrase “etc, etc” as it points towards the fact that we were never going to exhaust infinity and comprehend whatever we were looking at, plus it has an “eh fuck it” element I’ve always admired.)

It makes sense, then, that even in this ostensibly “character-driven” film, any glimpses of interiority are constructed only through exterior elements — tabloid journalism, emotionally direct dialogue from a play, aesthetic preferences, etc, etc. An aging actor (Juliette Binoche) travels to the Alps with her assistant (Kristen Stewart) in tow, and they run lines for a play whose author was Binoche’s good friend and has recently deceased. (It’s Irma Vep with a play instead of a film, with performance over production.) Binoche is not sure if she wants to go through with it, Stewart wants to fuck something or to show off, maybe. Dialogue from the play takes up a bulk of the screen time, morphing into a performative surface through which intimations of interiority are acted out rather than elucidated.

It’s eminently enjoyable to watch these two play off one another, Stewart’s mix of acerbity and open-mindedness — she defends the pop films Binoche can’t stand — clashing enjoyably with Binoche’s old-world art-film confidence, which shines even while playing a character ostensibly on the brink of collapse. The two share some of the most invitingly genuine on-screen laughter in recent memory, and have great haircuts. It’s an old Hollywood diva picture with the melodrama replaced by referents to melodrama, scene-chewing acting intact, albeit a bit toned-down to match Assayas’ hyper-cool sensibilities. It’s complicated, yes, or maybe simplified, by a tendency to bury salacious or just-relevant plot details within fade outs on the end of scenes, which keeps focus on these actors’ tête-à-têtes over narrative progression. It’s not surprising Stewart won a Cesar for this, for several reasons.

Speaking of surfaces again for a second, that 35mm film stock looks amazing. It’s almost distracting.

When turning to second-level representations, though, Assayas’ facsimiles don’t quite work. The play at the center of the plot, which derives its name from the cloud formation from which the film also takes its name, simply doesn’t appear to be any good. It’s a bleakly nihilist bit of homosexual tension played out through overt declarations — “And with me you don’t feel free!” / “You’ve become too dependent on me!” — but the lines don’t land. Part of this is due to the deliberate device of them being presented as rehearsal, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that this hypothetical play simply isn’t very good, or, more to the point, that the lack of meat the play’s dialogue provides the film’s lead actors isn’t strong enough to support Assayas’ conceits.

An imagined space opera starring Chloë Grace Moretz plays out worse, wrought from overtly terribly dialogue and shot such that it just looks like a low budget Assayas film in space, making it tough for audiences to buy Stewart’s defense of it, and diminishing Moretz’s appeal when she crops up in Clouds of Sils Maria as an amusingly gentile image of a loose cannon actor. Faring better is a black and white silent film of those clouds of Sils Maria watched on TV by Stewart and Binoche within the film and repeated in glorious 35mm shots near the film’s close — the pastiche to “reality” movement simple and clear and uninhibited by half-hearted genre tropes.

It’s enjoyable, too, to imagine the film as a tabloid, not just one that integrates them. He’s playing with some pretty blunt star profiles here, and lets that color the edges. It’s another surface, and another deliberately dead end narrative. (An actual third act dead end narrative involving Stewart is much more standard issue art house ambiguity and much less satisfying.) One wishes it were trashier, or bolder, or more ephemeral.

Still, though, it has some beautiful surfaces, and one should praise it for that.

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