The commercial film industry knows who it wants for lead roles: blond-haired blue-eyed white men who fit snugly into superhero suits. That leaves scraps for actresses like Maria Enders—who, in Clouds of Sils Maria, is both played by and modeled after French film legend Juliette Binoche—as she leaves her ingénue days behind for middle age. Now she gets offers to play witches, werewolves, and X-Men villainesses. “I’m sick of acting hanging from wires in front of green screens,” she protests. But anyone who goes to the multiplexes knows there’s not much else left.
She retreats to rarified circles—the stage, high society—for the respect she’s earned. We meet her holding court on a train, as her assistant Val (Kristen Stewart) rattles off the day’s messages. Maria’s accepting an award on behalf of the artist who made her career, Wilhelm Melchior—a playwright who pulled a Pynchon and turned his back on public life. While she’s en route, he passes away. Her acceptance speech becomes a eulogy. So does the film.
Maria gets roped into a revival of the Melchior play that made her name, now playing the older of the two lead roles. Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz,) a Lohan analog with a rap sheet stretching further than her IMDb page, fills Enders’ old shoes. Both Melchior and Ellis are abstracted: He’s seen on the back flaps of novels and published plays, while Ellis appears on the screens of freshly designed tech (Googling provides Enders with TMZ videos, leaked nudes, a 3D YA picture). They serve as opposing specters: the intimidating traditions of eras past, and the seemingly inevitable frivolity of pop culture’s future.
Clouds is directed by Olivier Assayas, who’s recently marked himself as a chronicler of cultural shifts. His Something in the Air considered the breakdown of leftist collectives in the post-’68 France, and before that his Carlos used the life story of a terrorist to try and pinpoint the intersection between pop celebrity and radical politics. Here he’s playing around with pop culture, using the public personas of Stewart (who shares many biographical details with Ellis) and Binoche (representing a class of performers better known for art than for exploits) to cultivate a dense inter-generational dialectic.
These two are emblems of their eras: The youth star argues for genre filmmaking and public transparency, while the seasoned vet complains about insufficient privacy, or about the high value today’s artists place on PR. Assayas takes no sides, employing a critical distance that lets him process the gaps between generations without bias. His frames often position the women as mirror images, leaving us to project our own prejudices onto their friendly feud. But a lament rings out regardless.
The bravura finale walks us through an elaborately designed stage, all glass walls and tinted mirrors—most are in iPhone white, reeking of the modern world—before we find Maria resting behind it all, with a look that suggests an exasperated acceptance. We may not like the overload of wires and screens, nor the shift in cultural priorities that they brought with them—but we’d best get used to it.