Rare it is for a film to make me question what I do. Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), which seems to be about acting and the actor’s world, or even about time, desire, and aging, is for me at least a meditation on what it means to interpret a narrative work of art.
In a story like this, interpretation can’t help but be placed front and center, because that’s the first thing a stage actor has to do to prepare for a role. Here, it’s more complicated: Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), invited to play on stage a woman seduced and ruined by the young girl she hires as an office assistant (Chloe-Grace Moretz), played that same girl in the same play twenty years ago. Maria is still stuck in the mindset of the younger role and struggles to discover and understand the older one. Talk about a parallax view. Enter her young, hip assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), who in reading lines as the younger role with her allows writer-director Olivier Assayas to cannily intertwine their dynamic with the dynamic of the play, even to a point that I think few would expect.
Maria struggles with those role dynamics, chalking up her earlier performance to the ignorance of youth; Val, despite (or because of) her fondness for blockbuster action spectacles, professes more insight into young roles, underwritten roles, sci-fi roles—basically any role. Her insight doesn’t ring true with Maria, though. This divide is echoed in the two actors’ acting styles: Binoche’s slightly exaggerated theatricality versus Stewart’s subdued naturalism.
And that’s the point at which I sat back and asked myself: Am I too much Val and not enough Maria? Every artistic creation, however trite, has an intention behind it, however muddled, but does that mean it’s worth explicating? Val’s appreciation for Jo-Anne (Moretz), seems based on a single scene in her sci-fi CGI extravaganza, in which her character is as thinly written as a Blade Runner. And yet Val’s interpretation manages to make her out as this deep, brooding, complex, tragic character. Roger Ebert famously tried to take films on their own terms, but it must be admitted that sometimes those terms were just very, very shitty. Most of the time, it’s a wash.
Take Clouds of Sils Maria itself. In the broadest of terms, it’s about time, aging, desire, etc. But these themes are filtered through the art of acting. More specifically, acting in a stage play, a mode of performance that generally treats the written text as more sacrosanct than film acting usually does. And so the key theme, to my eyes, is the interpretation of that text. Of course the freedom of interpretation only exists in the realm of possibility; once rehearsals have begun, it’s the actor in charge of the scene who interprets it, as Jo-Anne demonstrates to a beseeching Maria. Thus, focused as the film is on the realm of possibility over actuality, the world that these characters inhabit in the film carries a tinge of unreality, as Anthony Lane puts it, heightened by the title cards and slow fade-outs. But whether it’s, as Lane sees it, a naturalistic take on the unreality of the highest echelons of stardom, or a blinkered and stifling understanding of the art and world of the cinema, as scathingly argued by Richard Brody, is largely beside the point. Assayas never set out to contemplate the (un)reality of that world in the first place.
Or did he?
Does it matter?