Judging from the trailer for Olivier Assayas’ excellent Clouds of Sils Maria, you’d think that the film is a vaguely sleazy lesbian thriller—something akin to Brian de Palma’s Passion, or Assayas’ own demonlover—in which a woman of a certain age falls prey to the sexual machinations of a young femme fatale. So it was with some relief that I found the film to be a good deal more meditative, and less sexually overheated, than that misleadingly edited trailer would suggest. The relationships between the three women in the film are highly charged, to be sure, but also prickly, complicated, and richly layered. This is not the story of a love triangle, nor is it your typical juicy backstage melodrama. Indeed, the most audacious thing about the film has to be the straightforwardness and intelligence with which it regards all of its characters. There are no villains here, only three very different women, each at a different moment in her professional career, trying to make their way in an increasingly fractured industry.
The film takes place mostly at a chalet in the Swiss Alps where Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), an internationally renowned actress of stage and screen, prepares to appear in a new production of Maloja Snake, the play that first launched her career some twenty years earlier. Where once she starred as the seductive ingénue, Sigrid, she will now play Helena, the older woman caught under Sigrid’s spell. Maria—proud, intellectual, strong-willed—resents Helena as a character, and also resents herself for having outgrown the flashy roles reserved for younger actresses. Her resentment extends to Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz), the up-and-comer who has been cast as Sigrid. Jo-Ann appears to be volatile and inarticulate, a drama queen who manufactures tabloid scandals. As Maria panics at the thought of surrendering the limelight to amateurs like Joanne, it falls to her personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) to bolster her fragile ego. “Val” serves as both confidante and interlocutor to Maria, offering reassurance and support but also occasionally pushing back against Maria’s stodgier opinions about Hollywood and the culture industry.
Assayas regards all three characters with sympathy, thoughtfulness, and no little rue as they consider various professional maneuvers and weigh the consequences that come with them. Clouds of Sils Maria is as procedural and unsentimental in its examination of what it means to be a woman in the arts as Assayas’ Carlos was with regard to international terrorism. Like nearly all of Assayas’ films, Sils Maria is constantly aware of the extent to which contemporary life is shaped by global networks, information, technology, and the tension between public and private selves. (If there is a villain here, it’s the densely mediated late-capitalist system in which everyone is enmeshed.) But these ideas are more beautifully explored than here in any of Assayas’ previous films. Clouds of Sils Maria is something very close to a masterpiece, in large part due to the brilliance of its performances, the shrewdness of its writing, and the stately elegance of Assayas' direction. Binoche and Stewart are, quite simply, superb; Moretz is also very fine in the smallest and the trickiest of the three roles. Their characters are meaty and the dialogue is sensitively crafted. This may be one of the best-written films ever made for female actors. It’s the work of a consummately smart filmmaker unafraid of ideas and confident that we’re up to the challenge of thinking through them alongside him.