Published Sep 05, 2014On paper, Olivier Assayas' latest deconstruction of modern culture, Clouds of Sils Maria, appears facile. Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) — note her surname — is an aging actress, a product of an older, more glamourous and dignified form of celebrity, who suffers a crisis of identity when tackling the very project that made her famous 20 years earlier. The distinction here is that she's now playing the role of an older washed up actress rather than the desirable, 20-year-old ingénue.
This binary, one created by bookending a career with a summer-winter lesbian romance, is as transparent as it is perfunctory. As Maria gets closer to production, meeting the trashier, unpolished young actress, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), taking her old role, her seamless façade starts to come undone. There to draw out plot points and more complex characteristics is Maria's personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart), who is ostensibly a paid best friend with multiple devices on hand at all times.
Seemingly, the themes presented diverge from Assayas' existing roster of titles, lingering in the void of nostalgia and modern day malaise, criticizing a tweeting generation of tabloid actresses while martyring a woman of dignity to prove a point. But, knowing that the French auteur can't tackle a project without delving into endless didactics about the evils of greed, globalization and bourgeois obedience, the many seemingly incidental tidbits surrounding the central narrative here prove more deliberate.
Maria's world is insulated. Clouds is careful to limit its protagonist to modes of transport, hotels and the rural Swiss countryside to remove her from the very world she pleads with for attention. Her only window into the surrounding world is the Internet, though even that's filtered through the eyes of her assistant. The conversations between these two women, though casual and often superficial — assessing the pros and cons of superhero movies and mocking publicity opportunities — are cyclic in nature. Maria refuses to acknowledge any merit in modern Hollywood while Valentine argues that the same thematic complexities exist underneath the latex and giant budgets. What's consistent is Maria's tendency to dismiss Valentine's opinion and accuse her of lacking critical thinking, which builds a quiet tension exacerbated by Assayas' melding of their script reading with their real world arguments.
It's here where the concept of art imitating real life steps in. Since it's initially unclear when Valentine and Maria are running through lines or just shooting the shit, there's a discomforting sense of a distorted reality. Since Maria's reality is already skewed by media perceptions (her entire concept of Jo-Ann stems from YouTube videos and talk show appearances), there's a sense that the world of celebrity — or the 1% — is too detached from reality to properly assess it. We're also given some obvious visual cues of fiction blending with reality by the evolution of Maria's aesthetic, which gradually becomes more butch as she grows to identify with the lesbian character she's portraying on stage.
This inability to grasp the bigger picture concepts is key, as is the repeat usage of iPads, iPhones and Google to connect with a world that grows increasingly disparate. Just as Maria's undoing stems from an inability to distinguish real human connection from sycophantic flattery, her reliance on a paid subordinate to validate her identity reaches its metaphorical culmination when the pair take a trip to view the titular clouds — the "Maloja snake" in Switzerland — only to learn that fulfilling goals and reaching for dreams prove hollow when there's no one to share it with.
As much as Clouds presents itself as a treatise on dramatic cultural shifts, it's ultimately more preoccupied with the alienation that stems from technological advancement (something stated more clearly in Demonlover) and the virtually impenetrable shell of traditional success. What makes it so magnetic and intriguing is the way that Assayas refuses to spell out his intentions, making subtle points from seemingly banal moments and conversations, building on actions and visual cues to generate an overall sense of unease.
Though the themes are ultimately undergraduate and lack the punch they had in Assayas' tonally similar and ultimately superior family drama, Summer Hours, the director manages to utilize his strengths — focusing on the moment rather than the shot — to create an intriguing, almost metaphysical, mystery that lingers after the credits fade.