At about the midpoint of Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria, a woman approaching middle age, having just tossed a pair of car keys from her perch on a living-room sofa to a female figure twenty years her junior, abruptly jumps to attention, sprints up a flight of stairs, rounds a corner, and makes it to a balcony just in time to see the younger woman driving away. In what has become a pattern for this film of confounding open spaces and disciplined dead time, she and the movie both pause. We are, we process again, looking out from a house in the upper Engadine, a long, mountainous valley in the Swiss Alps dotted with lakes and fronted by a pass from which processions of clouds occasionally, beguilingly emerge. As the woman passes from the balcony to a desk behind a window, the camera slides horizontally to let us see, in the window’s reflection, the setting of the sun over the mountains. A cut, and it is just after dusk. The woman in question writes a phrase on a piece of paper and underlines it. After another half-beat, the scene ends.
Were we in the story of a mother’s fragile relationship with her daughter, the woman might be, say, writing the younger girl an anxious note, corresponding with the girl’s father, answering a letter from a school disciplinarian, or—here we are getting closer to Assayas’s territory—taking some time to tend to her own affairs. On the other hand, were this a movie about an aging woman losing control over her much younger lover, we would imagine her writing different sorts of notes: tender notes of entreaty, embittered notes of farewell, notes written in suicidal desperation. In the movie we are in, as it happens, two characters—not counting the heroine of the fictional play at the center of the film—will either attempt or commit suicide.
That the woman in question is an actress watching her personal assistant go off to a party at Lake Como, and that the phrase we see her write is the title of the play in which she’s just agreed to perform, raises more questions than it answers. Why this scene, here? Why take this particular moment to suddenly accelerate, and why then come to so short and sudden a stop? Why breathe for just this long? And why should she write, of all things, those words?
To look at Cold Water (1994) and Irma Vep (1996), the two movies with which Assayas secured his international reputation, side by side with his two most recent films—Clouds of Sils Maria and Après Mai (2012)—is to see similar dramatic situations sketched out, burrowed into, and worked through in strikingly different ways. Après Mai, which came to US theaters in 2013 under the somewhat less revealing title Something in the Air, deals, like Cold Water, with the generation of French teenagers who came of age in the early Seventies and bonded over their shared consciousness of having missed their chance to join the barricades in 1968. Irma Vep and Clouds of Sils Maria both involve a struggle on the part of an actress to navigate a production system she barely understands, and (more centrally) not to identify too fully with the role she’s taken on in a high-profile remake. The manic action of Irma Vep develops around the shoot of a film adapted from a silent serial, whereas Clouds of Sils Maria takes place in the lead-up to a restaging of a play.
One thing that unites these movies is their shared interest in what it means to feel unmoored or lost in one’s time. The young, first-time filmmaker who approaches Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) with the offer of a part near the end of Clouds of Sils Maria could have been speaking for many of Assayas’s characters when he insists that he “doesn’t like this era,” and the rebuke he receives from her—“it’s yours”—is precisely the fact from which most of those characters are trying to run. Countless scenes in Assayas’s early and mid-career films begin like stand-alone outbursts or conflagrations, usually sparked by the friction within a small pack of restless characters: the kids’ skirmishes with their concerned parents in Cold Water, the moments of glancing connection—a tense dinner party, a motorcycle ride by the Seine—that punctuate the backstage chaos that fills Irma Vep, or the series of stopgap fixes, jobs and temporary residences through which the heroine of Clean (2004), a recovering addict, drifts during her stay in Paris.
The newer films are firmer in structure. Clouds of Sils Maria is divided into two parts and an epilogue. Perhaps as a result, they are also mellower and more distant in style. If their characters are no less on the run, the camera is less willing to cling to them as it clung, for instance, to the teenagers weaving nimbly around and between one another in Cold Water’s climactic party scene. When Val (Kristen Stewart), Maria’s personal assistant, hurries out of the pair’s compartment on a train bound through the Alps in the new movie’s opening minutes, the camera lingers outside and pivots in place to follow her through the cramped hallway like a fellow passenger rather than—as it might have in the earlier movies—bouncing around her as a way of capturing what it might feel like, from her perspective, to pass through space in a rush.
Has Assayas gone slack? Few filmmakers have Assayas’s ear for how music can establish the pace, tone, and mood of a film, and it’s telling that the new movie’s soundtrack—its tonal scale—is dominated by Handel and Pachelbel rather than Creedence or Sonic Youth. In a sense, its wobbly train-set opening scenes turn out to be something of a fake-out; for the rest of the film, the trend is towards compositions of relative stillness and rest. When Maria and Val talk to each other—and they do just that for much of the film—it is often with a slightly off-kilter stiffness of syntax and tone. A scene of Maria sitting with a slightly older woman on a hill overlooking the Maloja pass and listening to her companion describe, over a gently swelling piece of music for strings, the natural phenomenon from which the movie takes its name comes off as tonally closer to, say, the pastoral idylls that fill Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale than to the scenes of terse, restless activity that were once Assayas’s specialty. Perhaps Assayas, having just passed sixty, has lost some of his interest in unsettlement as a motor for a film. But it would be truer to say that the sort of unsettledness that interests him has evolved into a more deeply internalized, suppressed, or private kind.
The woman with whom Maria is sitting is the widow of Wilhelm Melchior, the playwright and filmmaker who gave Binoche’s character her breakthrough role in his play Maloja Snake. No more than a day after Melchior’s death, plans have been set for a new staging of the play: a seduction drama about the middle-aged owner of a company driven to suicide after her affair with the young, sadistic female assistant Sigrid collapses. Having made her name playing the younger woman, Maria reluctantly agrees to take the role of the seduced and abandoned Helena against a headline-grabbing starlet (Chloë Grace Moretz). Knowing little about Jo-Anne Ellis beyond the young actress’s theatrical background and her arrest record, Maria sets up temporary residence with Val before rehearsals begin in the Sils Maria house where Melchior lived until his death.
The film’s first half-hour climaxes with a gala in Melchior’s honor, and it takes place in the stuffy, flashbulb-lit world of the middle-aged and famous. (“I’m gonna try to find somewhere livelier,” Val whispers to Maria seconds after the two of them step into an evening reception. “This place is a dead zone.”) What the movie’s last twenty minutes show is the jet-set world of the famous young; Maria, who we saw leave her limo near the start of the film to a sea of photographers, has to hurry to catch up with Jo-Ann’s car in the movie’s epilogue after a scandal surrounding the much younger star—her lover’s wife, a famous artist, has tried to commit suicide—seizes the press’s eye on the eve of Maloja Snake’s opening night.
In the opening scenes, you can feel Assayas clearing the ground for the drama of persuasion, seduction, and control between Maria and Val that will eventually take up the film’s center. Here there will be no men, and no attempts on the part of men to claim a right to either woman’s body, history, or name. When the bald, jaguar-eyed actor who seduced Maria at eighteen makes a point of reminding her at the gala when it was she last saw Melchior, she insists—“I don’t give a fuck that you know”—that whatever access he has to her past, she refuses to let him use it against her. (When, some minutes later, she gives him the number of the room in which she’s staying, it is on her terms—but not without a shade of neediness or desperation.) “In some way I am still Sigrid,” Maria announces self-consciously to the younger, male theater director bent on convincing her to take Helena’s part: “free, destructive, unpredictable. Beyond everything, I’ve always identified with that freedom.” She, more than any other character in Clouds of Sils Maria, has the self-determination to control the movie’s trajectory, and it is this—combined with her lostness, her insecurity about her age, and her inability to fix the world around her in place—that helps explain why the movie’s long midsection is so riddled with gaps, elisions, and dead zones.
One cinematic model for the tense domestic partnership Maria and Val act out in the movie’s midsection is Bergman’s Persona, another film in which two women—an actress and her helper—retreat to a secluded house, struggle to establish dominance over each other, and lose track of who they are. It’s when they run lines from Maloja Snake that the pair of women in Clouds of Sils Maria most risk sliding—as Maria puts it at one tense moment—into another person’s skin: Val into Sigrid’s, and Maria, reluctantly, into Helena’s. But from the start, the source of the play’s drama is not far from the source of the drama between the women themselves: each one’s need for the other’s approval, their mutual feelings of inadequacy, and their shared ability to recognize those feelings and turn them to advantage when they find them in someone else. The argument they break into over beers at a casino bar over the relative merits of Jo-Ann Ellis’s new superhero movie is a model of veiled antagonism. In all their comfort with one another, and all the intimacy visible in the way they exasperate each other, there is the fact that Maria refuses to take Val seriously, that Val wants to be taken seriously, and that Maria, in turn, needs Val to give her a sort of admiration the younger woman often decides to withhold.
Val, unlike Maria, has no past and few attachments. (“There haven’t been many,” Maria says of the other woman’s romantic partners, “and you burn through them pretty fast.”) The tone of her voice, her bearing, and her habits of dress lie somewhere between terse professionalism and studied nonchalance. Where Maria delights, like any performer, in the pleasure of dropping hints about her private life (watch the way she winks at Jo-Ann, whom she has just met, after alluding to all the “help” she received from Harrison Ford on the set of one film), Val keeps herself closer; when she reveals herself, it is, you sense, due to a lapse of attention. The glimmer of enthusiasm she lets slip when she greets Jo-Ann and the famous novelist with whom the actress is having an affair—“it’s really great to meet both of you, seriously”—means more than she would like. It is the sort of gesture that she herself would dismiss as shallow.
When Val confronts Maria over the older woman’s refusal to respect her (“you know, you don’t have to keep me on if you find my ideas simplistic”) or privately rebukes herself for having said a trite phrase, she is taking stock of a problem both characters have been trying to work out: their inability to keep up a conversation with the depth of feeling—the lack of shallowness—they expect from one another. It’s been said that much of the dialogue in Clouds of Sils Maria is disconcertingly stiff, thin, or tone-deaf. After Maria accuses a scene from Maloja Snake of sounding “ridiculous” and “phony” midway through the movie, Val insists back that fiction need not always sound perfectly true to life. “It can be literary but still be true,” Maria concedes, “[but] you can feel the difference. You can hear it.”
Watching Sils Maria, you can also hear the difference between a line that seems to emerge naturally from a well-imagined fictional character and one that makes its speaker somehow fictionally thinner, less present, phony. Dialogue has never been Assayas’s strongest suit. (Like his contemporary Claire Denis, he is more comfortable with the musical rhythms of wordless, dancelike physical encounters than with those of extended verbal conversations.) But if much of the new film’s dialogue does sound thin, it is often because the movie’s characters keep failing to give a voice to their own fullness of feeling or thought. They speak in ill-fitting stock phrases, snippets heard in movies, or lines learned for the plays in which they act. In a sense, they never—or rarely—speak from where they actually are.
Do they know where they are? If Persona is Clouds of Sils Maria’s most obvious model, a more useful point of reference might be Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy: a movie about a couple on the rocks staying at a cavernously empty house in a place with which neither party is familiar, hanging out, killing time, appreciating the scenery, and getting lost. Like Rossellini, Assayas has a special gift for paying attention simultaneously to his characters’ individual trajectories and to the claims they make on each other, the ways they egg each other on or hold each other back. Sometimes, Maria and Val find themselves lost together. “We’re heading down,” Maria insists after she gets the pair lost in a hilly forest one afternoon. “We’ll end up somewhere.” Earlier that scene, we saw the two of them fall asleep on an open, grassy incline scattered with goats. More often, however, they end up subject to independent, incommensurable kinds of lostness. Val refuses to share whatever happened the night she drove off to Lake Como, and the contrast between the shots of the Maloja clouds as she drives back hungover the next morning (stormy, threatening, set to the hoarse, aggressive beat of “Kowalski” by Primal Scream) and those of the clouds as they accompany Maria in her lostness (gold-tinged, serene, set most often to the weepy strings of Pachelbel’s Canon) suggests how little good it would do to try.
The structure of Voyage to Italy involves a movement towards an epiphany. Like Maria, Katherine Joyce (Ingrid Bergman) spends much of the movie adrift, in thrall to a country she doesn’t fully grasp, anxious over the end of her youth, and pessimistic about the fate of what has turned into the relationship of her life—in her case, a marriage. (Maria’s marriage, it’s established from the movie’s opening minutes, is over in all but name; Melchior, her other major male influence, dead. Val, to maybe both of their surprise, is her closest intimate.) To watch Voyage to Italy is to try to figure out whether Katherine wants her life to tumble into order in an epiphanic flash, or whether, on the contrary, it is precisely that sort of epiphany—which would, after all, mean coming to terms with her age, her mortality, and her lack of freedom—that she is working to stall or avoid.
The same ambiguity surrounds Maria for the length of Assayas’s film, where, unlike in Voyage to Italy, the epiphany in question fizzles out. In the minutes leading up to the end of the movie’s long central section, Maria and Val set out early in the morning to see the snake coming in over the pass. We have seen the snake before, first in a brief clip from the German “mountain film” director Arnold Fanck’s Das Wolkenphänomen von Maloja (1924), which punctures the movie near the start of its second part, then rolling over the pass while Val, ill-tempered and oblivious, drives home from the lake. The two women, to our knowledge, haven’t seen it yet. They argue for what turns out to be the last time over where they are (“What makes you think we’re here?” “I have a map!”), quarrel over the ending of Maloja Snake (does Helena’s disappearance signal her death, or her having gone to start a new life?), and move down a hill obscured, in the lower third of the screen, by the crest of another, closer hill in the foreground. A moment later, Maria re-emerges in the foreground, Val having slid out of sight and out of the film through the fission between the top and bottom sectors of the shot. From behind, we watch Maria try to pin down the snake’s arrival (“is that it?”) to the woman she assumes is still with her. She leaves to look for Val just as the clouds, in all due majesty, come snaking in.
The experience of trying and failing to stage an epiphany, or perhaps of successfully avoiding one, is an appropriate subject for a movie so full as Clouds of Sils Maria of gaps, ruptures, elisions, and ellipses: the widening and contracting gaps that can develop between an actor and her role; the gaps that emerge in the fabric of life during moments of boredom, anticipation, or inactivity; the emotional gaps that occur between two people forced into anything like a close bond. If these sorts of gaps are the themes with which Clouds of Sils Maria plays, the movie’s substance boils down, as it nearly always does in Assayas, to watching the way people go about enforcing the physical gaps they find that they need, for whatever reason, to preserve between themselves and others. Opening up some pockets of space and closing other ones, embracing, retreating, touching, following, coming apart: Val’s choice to abandon Maria at the movie’s climax, like Sigrid’s choice to abandon Helena at the end of Maloja Snake, is, on one level, a refusal to keep up the physical and emotional work of living next to her.
Val’s disappearance in Clouds of Sils Maria doesn’t read as an act of desperate renunciation. If it comes off as a show of the kind of autonomy Maria admired in Sigrid (“free, destructive, unpredictable”), it is just as much a gesture toward another kind of freedom: youth’s need to stage, or come into, its own epiphanies. Val could easily have grown up under parents who, like many members of Assayas’s generation, passed through runaway seventies adolescences of the sort shown in Cold Water or Après Mai. It’s been her choice to work in the kind of commercial industry from which, at her age, her mother and father would have proudly recoiled. Her lostness cannot be theirs, nor Maria’s, nor that of so serene and stoic a film as this.