Ever watched a movie and thought “Man, I wish this film had a line of dialogue (or 300) that explained exactly what it wants to be about?” Well, have you ever got a treat in store with “Clouds of Sils Maria”! The new film from Olivier Assayas which screened for press this morning as the last Palme d’Or competitor for Cannes 2014, is a curious type of failure: a film that mistakes needless complexity for depth, and in so doing tells us time and again what it’s about—art vs life, aging, identity, female jealousy, manipulation and insecurity—without ever actually being about those things. Couple that with the fact that the omnipresent, overexplanatory dialogue feels written by someone accomplished in English, but not a native speaker, and you get whole speeches that are stuffed with stilted sentences that roll around the actors’ mouths like marbles; you become a little worried one of them might accidentally swallow one of those ungainly phrases and choke to death. Of course it wouldn’t matter so much if the film wasn’t so reliant on dialogue as the driver of the narrative, but here Assayas’ wordiness is given free rein, with apparently none of his characters ever having an unexpressed thought, as though if they’re not talking, they’re not acting.
The story plays out in three sections, the middle being the longest. On her way to accept an award for the director who gave her her big break in a play (and subsequent film), called “Maloja Snake”(as is repeated at us ad infinitum), famous actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) and her PA Val (Kristen Stewart) learn of the director’s death. Soon after, Enders agrees to play the second lead in a restaging of “Maloja Snake” in which her original part will be taken by starlet Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz). Enders agonizes over this decision, trying to find her way in to the role of the older, weaker woman while the parallels between her and Val and the two characters in the play also become clearer.
Juliette Binoche is pretty much destined to be overpraised for everything she does from now until the end of time, but she's earned that privilege, and here she's solid rather in spite of a role that is both overwritten and underdeveloped. But we can't go into the ecstasies that many have already expressed; despite some nice sparky chemistry with Kristen Stewart, it’s such a relentlessly self-serving, inward-looking role, and even at her best, the hall of mirrors refraction of playing a character so closely identifiable as a proxy for herself somehow diminishes Binoche's performance. As with one of the many pat dualities the film sets up, she’s an experienced, accomplished actress being asked to engage in a kind of postmodern experiment, but her considerable talents just aren't best served by this sort of approach and can find little purchase on such an illusory character.
We're as surprised as anyone, but the major acting laurels on this particular occasion go to, wait for it, Kristen Stewart, who for our money delivers the better performance (and the film is mostly a two-hander between her and Binoche) and actually manages to make some of the thankless exposition and clumsy dialogue she’s given sound almost natural. Perhaps it’s because she’s playing a character that is not a version of herself—as much as the film comments on Stewart’s fame and peculiar type of celebrity, it does so largely through the medium of Moretz's Jo-Ann character, and so Stewart is free to just play a part and not navel gaze quite so much. In her guise as a personal assistant to a star, she can deliver observations about the nature of teen fandom and say stuff like “there are a shit ton of pre teens, so watch out” and we can all chuckle at the thought of the rabid 12-year-old ”Twilight” fanbase, but she is doing it from the safe distance of a role that is clearly differentiated from her, and in which she is natural and unforced.
Elsewhere, though, jerkily written and unevenly acted, the film’s style is also far from Assayas’ best. Strangely lacking in atmosphere, employing very little music so that the few sudden soundtrack cues come off as jarring, it is also, aside from the prettiness of the Swiss Alpine setting, quite indifferently shot and oddly edited. Scenes fade to black before they’ve quite ended, and dissolves are used in seemingly random manner, with one particular sequence, of Kristen Stewart’s Val driving along the twisty mountain roads playing out entirely in double exposure, implying some sort of dreamy, trippy vibe to which the film never returns and on which it never comments. The titles of fictional films are awkward (“A Beetle on its Back” starring Harrison Ford? Really?) and the snippets of interview footage and the film-within-the-film (Moretz’s awful mutant movie) may be supposed to be pastiche-y but they just come across as cheap.
Some smartypantses will no doubt pull the old “But it’s meta, see so it’s all meant to feel artificial and unreal and contrived.” And maybe it is, maybe Assayas has such a highly developed sense of irony that he has made a not-very-good film to hyper-comment on the nature of not-very-good art. In which case, bully for him, it’s still a not-very-good film. In fact, it felt to us like a catalogue of self-serving narrative contrivances; “Maloja Snake,” from which we hear long swathes and scenes, is after all a fictional play that has been entirely manufactured for the film in order to comment on the central relationship, which is profoundly changed by the experience of reading the play ... and so on and so on. We like meta as much as the next guy, but it can't just say “hey, look at us making a comment on the relationship between art and life and celebrity” it should actually make that comment. But the ouroboros of Assayas’ film devours itself completely, leaving nothing behind. At best a handful of transitory pleasures, 'Sils Maria' threads through the peaks and valleys of weighty, interesting topics, but makes no lasting impression on them, insubstantial as a cloud. [C]