Clouds of Sils Maria will forever be known as “that film Kristen Stewart smiles in.” The many reasons why the young star and queer-lady favorite smiles throughout the film bespeak its many narrative layers. In fact, it is the profundity of Clouds meta-narratives that make it so dramatically fascinating ….not to mention that we queer women get a full-on bush-shot of Juliette Binoche.
Juliette plays Maria Enders, a middle age actress at the height of her career, who accepts a role in the theatrical revival of a play that made her career 20 years prior. This is one meta-narrative: The play is about the intensely intimate—although not explicitly sexual—relationship between an older woman and her assistant. In the original production, Maria played the assistant; now, as the middle-age woman, she, reluctantly, plays the part of the older woman.
In order to prepare for the revival, she asks her assistant Valentine, played by Kristen, to play the part of the assistant. The plot becomes complex as Maria and Valentine play out the relationship of the characters. Emotions bleed. It soon becomes difficult for both women to decipher what is play and what is not—begging the question if all of life is made of up performances, of us playing parts that just fall into our laps for a duration of time, before we move on.
At the same time Enders, as many female actors grapple with today, is grappling with her own sense of mortality in a career field that judges women based on their age. You witness her battling this frustration—with aging, with mortality, with the acting profession and the nature of celebrity—both in her moments alone wandering the stunning Swiss countryside (the Engadin, or the Maloja wind that propels clouds through the valley of the Sil Maria landscape, figures as another meta/metaphorical component), and in her increasingly overdetermined interactions with Valentine.
Both Juliette and Kristen are fantastic in the roles. Stewart, for her part, took glee in playing the Hollywood assistant. “I had to reign in the glee on my face. I had to make sure my cheeks weren’t turning red and I wasn’t in hysterical laughter when I said some of the lines that I said in the movie,” Kristen said, as quoted at the Huffington Post. Her face really does convey this sentiment, revealing another unintended effect of the film’s meta-nature. She, arguably, has never appeared happier in any role any film.
It is no wonder that both she and Binoche were nominated for Cesar awards (aka the “French Oscars”) for Best Supporting Actress and Best Actress, respectively. (To note, Kristen’s win made her the first American actress to be nominated for a Cesar in 30 years, and now, the first American actress to win the honor.)
This is not the first time French filmmaker Olivier Assayas (Paris Je T’aime, Summer Hours) has worked with Binoche. His film Rendez-vous launched her international career in 1985, which makes this connection, as well as the fact that he made Clouds as a “portrait” of her, another meta-component of this film.
This also isn’t the first time Assayas has given us a lesbian subtext. In 1996 he wrote Irma Vep, which is all about lesbian vampires, or vampires with sapphic tendencies, starring his ex-wife Maggie Cheung.
Clouds of Sils Maria opens April 10 for audiences in New York City and Los Angeles, with a national release to follow. Fans of these two phenomenal actresses will be delighted with this film, as will anyone who loves a drama about performance, play, and the complexity of intimate relations between women.