Director Olivier Assayas has a penchant of late for companion piece films. His 2012 feature Something in the Air, a film loosely based on his own coming of age in an era of widespread disillusion, was concerned with youth rebellion in early 1970s France. He mined some similar territory beforehand in his 1994 effort Cold Water, however that film only alluded to the political concerns that Something in the Air puts closer to the forefront. Cold Water and Something share some character names, similar visual cues and thematic motifs. In a way, it’s as though Assayas is using the newer film to comment on the older one, and considering Cold Water’s own supposedly autobiographical elements, one can argue that Something works as an artist looking back on how he previously looked back on his past.
This elaborate self-reflexive approach is maintained for Assayas’ latest extraordinary film, Clouds of Sils Maria, which can be viewed as a companion piece to his 1996 work Irma Vep. Both concern a veteran actress coming to terms with their place in a cinematic landscape they find increasingly baffling, and each offers a unique meta-commentary on contemporary filmmaking. Clouds of Sils Maria takes some major swings at Hollywood’s current crop of samey sci-fi and fantasy franchises along with star stories told through social media and gossip sites.
The meta levels include a co-lead role for Kristen Stewart (doing great work here), star of the Twilight behemoth that has kickstarted so many wannabe contenders after similar box office glory. The franchise contains the sort of pop cinema Assayas parodies in clip reels for a key supporting character in Clouds of Sils Maria.
Jo-Ann Ellis (played by Chloë Grace Moretz) is an underestimated young talent eager to prove herself in more interesting fare with acclaimed directors. She is hounded by paparazzi, caught up in an affair scandal, uncomfortable on talk shows and best known for a starring role in arguable schlock. Ellis is basically Moretz playing Kristen Stewart, albeit with a touch of Lindsay Lohan’s mid-2000s persona of debauchery.
Clouds of Sils Maria isn’t all satirical digs. The film is primarily an excellent psychosexual drama with touches of Persona and L’Avventura. Stewart spends much of her time engaging in pointed exchanges with Juliette Binoche’s Maria Enders; an actress with an enviable international career that’s lasted several decades. Now in her forties, she first made her name at 18 by starring in a film version of the play Maloja Snake, portraying the younger half of a dark May-September romance with another woman. Maria is offered the chance to play the older role in a theatrical revival, with Moretz’s Jo-Ann as the younger character. She and her assistant (Stewart) see their relationship warped in commenting on their divergent perceptions of the play, as Maria views things in an entirely new light to decades ago.
An Olivier Assayas film in which an artist reflects on their own creative past in a new light — there must be something in the air at Sils Maria.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in Glasgow, Scotland. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is currently the managing film editor at Sound On Sight, and a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny.