Fans of Kristen Stewart and/or Chloe Grace Moretz might get a surprise when they hunker down to watch Clouds Of Sils Maria.
Any ass-kicking or vampirism here on display is of the mental and metaphorical kind, the Hollywood It girls teaming up with one of Europe’s premier auteurs, Olivier Assayas (Carlos, Something In The Air), to take part in a multi-layered meta-fiction that potently explores themes of aging, role playing and stardom. Think All About Eve meets Persona.
The title refers to the strange weather phenomenon in the heart of the Swiss Alps whereby ramblers might witness the Maloja Snake, a trail of clouds that roll in from the lakes to glide its way between hilltops.
Maloja Snake is also the title of the play that, two decades before, made Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) a star. She’s now visiting Sils Maria to accept an award on the playwright’s behalf, flanked by her BlackBerry-juggling assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), and hunted down by a renowned stage director who wishes to revive the play in London.
In the original stage version, Maria played Sigrid, a slyly ambitious 18 year old who seduces her middle-aged boss, Helena, then leaves her high and dry. Now she’s being courted to essay Helena, with her signature role going to Hollywood hellcat Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz), a star of 3D superhero hits and TMZ.
This switch of roles naturally plays into Maria’s own fear of aging in an industry that now churns out product she views as trash (though in one standout scene, Stewart’s PA vibrantly defends the artistic integrity of blockbusters while telling Maria to be mindful of the power of the “pre-teen” audience). It’s also clear, upon running lines, that Mari’s bringing her own age, experiences and views to the text – as we all do.
Assayas’ screenplay deftly celebrates the act of creation and neatly demonstrates that works of art, like people, can be viewed from different angles, their true meaning unknowable.
The French filmmaker also neatly dovetails the relationship of Sigrid and Helena with that of Maria and Valentine: the pair are close, at times bordering on getting too close, and their power dynamic squirms and coils as the film develops - a Maloja Snake of its own.
In face of a strong competition line up, it seems unlikely that Clouds Of Sils Maria will be among the prizes. But it’s an elegant, intelligent drama, enlivened by strong performances by Binoche, Moretz and especially Stewart, for whom this will surely usher in a new dawn.