A great writer once told me that “I didn’t get it” can be a reasonable response to a work of art, even for a critic. If an artist doesn’t communicate with the audience – assuming the audience has been willing to meet him partway – that artist has failed.
I remembered that chat during “Clouds of Sils Maria.” I understood what I was seeing but not why I was hearing writer-director Olivier Assayas’ characters talk and talk and talk. All I could think of was Rick’s great farewell to Ilsa in “Casablanca”: “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
Actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) was sensational in a play 20 years ago as a cruel, exploitative young intern who makes her female boss fall in love with her. Now the author asks her to play the older woman opposite Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), a 19-year-old American who wants to jump from superhero films to stage work.
Valentine (Kristen Stewart), Maria’s all-purpose secretary/confidant, urges her to accept the job. Aside from halfhearted asides about paparazzi and life as a celebrity, Assayas spends the rest of the film exploring actors’ responsibilities, prejudices and inhibitions.
Binoche provides pleasure wherever she goes, though Maria’s cud-chewing about whether to take a role she detests seems endless. She condescends to Jo-Ann, but why not? The young actress is a selfish performer who lacks presence and presence of mind; Moretz doesn’t show the mesmeric glow Jo-Ann allegedly possesses.
Stewart’s character has a shadowy role: She connects the elevated, snobbish Maria with the world of pop culture, supplying common-sense advice and comfort. But we know nothing about Valentine, and she’s the most intriguing (and eventually unfinished) character in the piece.
The title refers to clouds that gather in a Swiss valley and begin to float down the river like a misty snake. This event happens in the play that made young Maria a star and in the movie version of that play, which cemented her fame as an actress.
It also happens in Assayas’ picture, one of many examples of life imitating art that crop up. We’re meant to wonder, for instance, whether Valentine is “using” Maria for some undefined purpose, and whether Maria is attracted to Valentine or even a kind of slave to her.
Everything about this film, from the title to the metaphors, remains cloudy. And you can watch clouds only so long before you realize they don’t have any weight at all.
‘Clouds of Sils Maria’
An actress agrees to appear in the play that made her famous 20 years ago, now in a different role opposite a young American star of superhero movies. Maximum philosophizing, minimum emotions.
C STARS: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz.
WRITER-DIRECTOR: Olivier Assayas.
RUNNING TIME: 123 minutes.
RATING: R (language, brief graphic nudity).