If Jean-Luc Godard was correct when he surmised, “The history of cinema is the story of men filming women,” then the French auteur Olivier Assayas’s latest, Clouds of Sils Maria, adds the crucial word missing from that epigraph: young.
The cinema is unkind to actresses of a certain age, replacing them with younger, newer models, forcing them from the spotlight to make way for tomorrow. That is not something Maria (Juliette Binoche), a renowned actress of the stage and screen, is ready to do. Twenty years ago, Maria’s career was catapulted to fame when she starred as Sigrid in Wilhelm Melchior’s play, Maloja Snake, about an older woman, Helen, who falls in love with a young secretary at her office, Sigrid, and is driven to suicide by her rejection. Maria — now the age of the Helen character — returns to Zurich to present Melchior with a lifetime achievement award. But Melchior dies while en route and the ceremony is quickly turned into a tribute where Maria doesn’t congratulate Melchior, she eulogizes him.
Despite her immediate concerns, the affair is a success, bringing a healthy shine back to Maria. Trying to capitalize on this moment, a young stage director, Klaus (Lars Eidinger) pitches Maria a role: re-stage Maloja Snake with Maria as Helen instead of Sigrid. Maria scoffs at the idea, but, with a little prodding from her personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), she begins to realize her career choices are dwindling. Maria accepts the role, and moves into Melchior’s Sils Maria home to rehearse and prepare with Valentine.
The men of Sils Maria see Maria as an actress approaching her sell-by date — uncomfortable but true. Compounding the notion of “old” in movies, where actresses are treated as sexual objects first and a woman/mother/sister/child second, Maria is in her 40s, but Binoche is 51. It is of no coincidence that Klaus wants to cast Jo-Ann (Chloë Grace Moretz) as the new Sigrid — a young, sexually and emotionally out of control actress, carrying on an affair with a married man. It is no coincidence that Assayas casts Moretz, an actress who has toed the Lolita line ever since starring as the foul-mouthed Kick-Ass assassin at the age of 13. Assayas, either knowingly or not, is doing a bang-up job channeling Dazed and Confused’s Wooderson, “I get older; they stay the same age.”
But where Wooderson was full of charm and good humor, Assayas is tragically serious. He holds up a mirror to an actress, a mirror of another sort, and Assayas gets desperately lost in the endless series of duplicates.
Thankfully, he has Binoche, Stewart and Moretz to pull him out of it. While Assayas is busy naval-gazing, the three actresses manage to snatch Clouds of Sils Maria away from him — keeping the focus where it ought to be in the first place.