It wasn't too long ago that we as a nation found ourselves deep in the so-called "McConaissance," the name jokingly given to the career resurgence of actor Matthew McConaughey as he drifted from being the doofy lead in an endless series of romantic-comedies to becoming a bona fide serious actor; a trajectory that you might recall culminated with him winning an Oscar. Barely two years later, we find ourselves witnessing the similar reinvention of Kristen Stewart. (Kristenaissance? Stewaissance? Krisurgence?) As an actress, Stewart is best known for her somnambulant work in the "Twilight" franchise, but has lately dedicated herself to taking challenging roles in smaller, more interesting projects. Things really kicked into gear with a wonderful performance opposite Julianne Moore in "Still Alice," and the trend continues with Olivier Assayas' "Clouds of Sils Maria," in which she holds the screen against no less a powerhouse than Juliette Binoche. Her efforts seem to be paying off: Stewart was recently awarded the French film industry's highest honor -- the César -- for her role here, marking the first time an American actress has ever taken that prize.
In Assayas's melancholy metafiction, Stewart stars opposite Binoche, who portrays a celebrated actress of stage and screen, Maria Enders. Stewart is Valentine, Maria's indispensable personal assistant whom the actress requires be by her side seemingly every waking moment. As the film begins, Maria is on her way to Zurich for a gala event honoring her mentor, playwright Wilhelm Melchior. Melchior's early play "Maloja Snake," about the doomed love affair between a middle-aged business woman and her manipulative 20-something assistant, launched Maria's career as a young ingénue 20 years earlier and she's happy to celebrate the work of a close friend. But en route, Maria receives word that Wilhelm has died unexpectedly, and suddenly the tribute becomes a memorial.
Still in the midst of grieving, Maria is approached by a hotshot theater director (Lars Eidinger) with an offer to star in a revival of "Maloja Snake." Instead of playing the role she originated on the stage, Maria will now take on the role of the older woman, opposite a rising starlet named Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), whose most notable roles to date have been a 3D science-fiction blockbuster and the occasional meltdowns that land her on the covers of tabloids the world over. With some reluctance, and some heavy coaxing from Valentine, Maria agrees.
Wilhelm's widow allows Maria to stay in her secluded home in the Swiss mountains while she prepares for the role. In the isolation of this setting, she and Valentine run lines, with Val filling in the role of the younger woman. As they rehearse, the characters on the page soon begin to reflect the women's real-life positions; the line between life and the play begins to blur and things take a turn for the existential.
With Maria's age and insecurities clouding her perception, she sees her role through newly critical and slightly bitter eyes, resenting her character's dependence on the younger woman. Maria's difficulty in letting go of the past and moving on to a new phase of both her career and her life. More parallels are drawn between Maria and Jo-Ann and ultimately Maria's relationship with her younger self. For much of the time, it's just Binoche and Stewart on screen, and the knotty, feisty interplay between the two forms the heart of the film. Assayas knowingly plays with our perception of both actresses. Binoche supplements her usual elegance with a frayed edge of desperation. In many ways, Binoche seems to be playing herself, or some version of herself, and so it follows that we should scan for similarities between Stewart and her character. For once some knowledge of an actress' life off-screen actually adds to the film, bringing out more layers to explore and adding an interesting tension into the give-and-take between the performers.
In examining celebrity culture, "Clouds of Sils Maria" taps into anxieties about aging that seem particularly keen for actresses, who must deal with a society that closely monitors them for signs of aging on screen (for a more comedic take on a similar idea, see the recent "Inside Amy Schumer" sketch starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey, and Patricia Arquette which made the internet rounds this past week). Assayas isn't saying anything particularly new about art or performance or growing older, but he brings as elegance to the material that's matched by his capable actresses. In offering a loving tribute to actresses of all stripes, it is little surprise that the director manages to bring out the best in them.