Binoche plays the part of Maria Enders, a famous actress whose success stemmed from a role in Maloja Snake, a play written by one Wilhelm Melchior, in which she was the younger element, Sigrid, of a lesbian affair with Helena, her boss. The play is to be revived in London and Enders is coming to terms with now taking the part of the older woman. Maria and her PA, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), are on their way by train to Zurich for a tribute to Melchior when they learn that he has died. Subsequently Melchior’s widow lets them stay in her house at Sils Maria while she is away. They walk in the mountains, swim and go to the casino and Valentine helps Maria rehearse her lines as Helena. Although Valentine is supposed to be reading Sigrid’s part (from what looks like a Faber and Faber paperback), what she is saying could easily be pertinent to her own relationship with Maria - only when she includes the stage directions are we certain that we are in the play and not the film.
Maria is unsettled by the prospect of working opposite her successor as Sigrid, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), a rising young starlet much admired by Valentine. Maria’s researches on Google do nothing to reassure her - Assayas seems to have enjoyed himself knocking up some Hollywood SFX schlock* starring Jo-Ann - but when Maria eventually meets her in a posh alpine hotel, it all seems more promising. The film ends with a Sequel set in London prior to the opening, when Jo-Ann, not for the first time, has a run-in with the papararazzi. We see Maloja Snake being performed on a set so large that even the National Theatre would find it difficult to accommodate.
So what underlies this film? Apart from alpine scenery (summery rather than snowy as in Force Majeure, another recent Cannes 2014 arrival, but just as unreal and brooding), much of it is in the mind of the beholder. Take the skinny-dipping scene, for example, when Maria strips off with aplomb and plunges into the chilly lake but Valentine keeps her undies on including “absolutely enormous panties”. Is she worried about sapphic advances by her employer - later Maria sees her wearing a thong after a night out? And then there is the metaphorical Maloja Snake, a dramatic meteorological phenomenon involving clouds and valleys – but of uncertain significance not just in the film but also in the play. And whatever happened to … – but that would be a spoiler.
The real critics liked this film: “complex, bewitching and fearlessly intelligent” and “the kind of ravishingly smart, liltingly beautiful film you assume isn’t being made any more” and nearly all gave it 4* ratings. I thought it was ponderous at times, didn’t really address “challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions (see below)” apart from the problem of being an ageing actress, though Binoche at 50 has no problem playing 40, that there were oddities in the cutting – the weather must change fast in the Alps – and why the formal demarcation of the Epilogue? There might just as well have been a Prologue for the scenes before the arrival at the Melchiors’ house. Of his previous work that I can remember, I prefer Assayas’ ‘French’ films like Something in the Air and Summer Hours. Apparently Clouds of Sils Maria was financed in part by Chanel, “providing some of the budget to allow Olivier Assayas to fulfill his dream of shooting a film on 35-mm film instead of digitally” according to Wikipedia, but just a drop in the lake out of their advertising budget I would imagine.
*Nicely put in this article, Simon Pegg criticises ‘dumbing down’ of cinema, in the Guardian on 19 May 2015:
Pegg, who played chief engineer Scotty in the recent Star Trek films, added: “Obviously I’m very much a self-confessed fan of science fiction and genre cinema but part of me looks at society as it is now and just thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste.
“Now we’re essentially all consuming very childish things – comic books, superheroes. Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously.
“It is a kind of dumbing down, in a way, because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions that might make you walk away and re-evaluate how you felt about … whatever.
“Now we’re walking out of the cinema really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot.”