Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is a world famous leading actress who was made known throughout the world by starring in both the play and film versions of Maloja Snake by Wilhelm Melchior, a recently departed Swiss playwright. Maria is offered a role in the play once again, however, instead of playing Sigrid twenty years on Maria is now set to play Helena, the women who is driven to suicide by Sigrid. The film follows Maria and her American assistant, Valentine (Kirsten Stewart), as they prepare for the role.
One of the main themes of Clouds of Sils Maria is something that been making Hollywood headlines for the past few years and that is the subject of aging. Hollywood stars like Meryl Streep and Dame Helen Mirren have commented upon the lack of female roles for older women. At 37 Maggie Gyllenhaal was considered too old to play a love interest to a 55 year old man and for a few years Jessica Chastain refused to reveal her age and was pissed off when it was revealed. Naturally, in a superficial world where looking good is of supreme importance Maria Enders finds the aging process difficult to come to terms with, especially when her young, sexy and hip assistant has to keep her in know regarding the latest Hollywood young stars.
Another debate the film brings up is highbrow vs lowbrow art, similar to Michael Keaton's Riggan Thomson in Birdman Juliette Binoche's Maria Enders no longer wants to be suspended from high wires in front of a green screen, in fact she reviews a Hollywood film by saying that she was losing a brain cell each second she watched it. Even the superhero film, starring Chloe Moretz's Jo-Ann Ellis (a character that mirrors Stewart's relationship with the press), is made in such a lame way (Maria is very dismissive that there is any depth to the film but to be fair it does look crap) that it feels that the film is mocking such lowbrow art. Whenever Valentine defends such films Maria laughs hysterically and the viewer wonders whether to laugh with her. Clouds of Sils Maria is certainly set in world where one's artistic credentials are viewed far greater if they played a role in highbrow art. It's telling that the lone voice defending the supposed low brow art is Stewart's Valentine and it's also telling young starlet Jo-Ann Ellis' main impression of Maria Enders is from a Hollywood film.
Both the performances of Binoche (whose role is semi autobiographical) and Stewart are superb (there is also a decent supporting performance from Chloe Moretz as a young Hollywood star gone off the rails), Stewart in particular is revelation. Stewart (her dismissive "it's got werewolves...for some reason" when discussing a Spanish horror film is comedy gold) has had her critics, her performance in the Twilight franchise and Snow White are hardly glowing examples of her talent, but her performance in Clouds of Sils Maria is a brilliant one. It's a great, underplayed performance that led Stewart to become the first ever American actress to win a Cesar award. The relationship that Valentine and Maria share (the relationship bears a strong similarity to play that Maria is auditioning for and its possible to detect an element of sexual tension between the two) is paramount to the film and the performances of two leading ladies makes their relationship interesting enough to power through this slow moving character study.
Olivier Assayas's film is an intelligent written drama that is powered by two perfect leading performances, Juliette Binoche is outstanding but it's Kristen Stewart who is the biggest surprise of all. Give her a good character and she'll knock it out the park, give her a bland character and she'll give an equally bland performance.