Olivier Assayas opens Clouds of Sils Maria with nothing short of a master class on how to shoot a scene inside a moving train. The camera and cutting follow an organic and prophetic rhythm, at once condensing and announcing the film’s themes and metaphorical fixations. There’s something treacherous about this train, a sense that the sturdy tracks on which it travels conceal its true aim: chaos. Assayas’s train neither derails nor performs the sterile background function of Lars von Trier’s in the horny-teen-preys-on-married-man scene from Nymphomaniac: Volume I. This train is actually alive, a psychosomatic bomb of anxiety and turmoil (were it an airplane, the turbulences would be incessant) leading up to the deceiving stillness of the Swiss Alps, where we learn a seasonal gathering of clouds (the “Maloja snake” effect) has foretelling powers.
Inside the train there’s a French star with an enviable international career, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), who’s too serious about her craft to be a diva, but won’t pass on a Chanel dress photo shoot right when her whole world is falling apart either. She’s headed to an event in Switzerland, where she’s to accept an award for the playwright responsible for her first big break. Enders is accompanied by her diligent, Converse-wearing personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), whose talents for juggling multiple digital devices and inciting top-down erotic investment are unmatched. Before the train arrives at its destination, the characters learn the playwright has just passed away, which destabilizes Enders, who’s in the middle of a nasty divorce. The story from then on follows the misleading simplicity of a Bergman script, and relies on the capacity for nuance of the actors’ faces just as much. Enders is invited to perform a new version of the play that shot her to stardom when she was 18, a backhanded compliment considering that instead of playing the attractive young girl, she’ll now have to play the girl’s bitter, suicide-driven boss. It’s a good thing Valentine is around to make her coffee, run lines, and disagree with her lofty interpretations of art and life, keeping her on her toes.
Enders and Valentine’s personal relationship, treading the porous line between professional distance and erotic curiosity, mirrors the characters in the play in both discrete and obvious ways. When the two run lines with each other as they hike through the Alps, it can be deliciously impossible to know if they’re lines from the play-within-the-film or from the film itself, as they’re both so viscerally invested in their delivery. Yet this isn’t like Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, where not knowing what belongs to the fiction of the fiction was the core concept of the film and its principal source of pleasure. This is about getting lost in the various nooks and crannies of the text itself. If the metaphors are sometimes overplayed, the dialogue is so well written you wish Assayas would forget to snap from the play’s rehearsals back to the film. The pleasure in watching Clouds of Sils Maria becomes a linguistic one as Binoche and Stewart masterfully sharpen their words and hurl them at each other like projectiles out of a blowpipe.
The friction between Binoche’s gravitas and Stewart’s unintimidated response to it make for a fascinatingly quiet drama. This is in large part due to the brilliant way Binoche animates her English lines so differently than her French ones—as if she knows to keep her shit storm in a bain-marie for the Americans, and can’t help but let her hysteria eke out in her mother tongue. Stewart is surprisingly self-assured as both a punching bag and launching pad for Binoche’s tour de force. Stewart’s acting strength lies in the way that she doesn’t try to mimic Binoche’s complexity, instead remaining resolutely an American, from the vulgarity of her tattoos to the putative plainness of her insights regarding the play.
Binoche and Stewart’s co-inhabitance on the screen works so well because it’s a non-encounter: Binoche classily refusing to slay Stewart, and Stewart respectfully accepting her smallness before the French star. This is a film about repression, about learning to treat desire with miserliness if one is to go on as if unwounded. Who better to embody such strategy than the awkward Stewart, whose movie-star reluctance is a pose so consistent it’s as though her shoulders lean perpetually forward. In the über-flattering portrait of Stewart that Assayas penned for French Vogue, he compares his encounter with the Hollywood actress to Binoche and Kiarostami’s in Certified Copy, and Maggie Cheung and himself in the exquisite Irma Vep: the kind of unlikeliness that creates, if not magic, a rather photogenic kind of spell. More than a film about the malice of language, Clouds of Sils Maria is, curiously, the capturing of this mesmerizing spark spawned by Binoche and Stewart’s unlikely non-encounter, which escapes language proper, but fits rather handsomely inside a cinematic flask.