I haven't actually seen that many films from writer-director Olivier Assayas, but what I HAVE seen from him has impressed me. He's a very talented director, eliciting superb performances from his cast and crafting scenes of sedate thoughtfulness that never feel just dull. Clouds Of Sils Maria is exactly in line with the other Assayas films I have knowledge of.
Juliette Binoche plays Maria Enders, an elderly actress with a rather unique problem/opportunity. She has been offered the chance to play the older character in a play that helped to set her on her way to stardom when, decades earlier, she has portrayed the younger character. Discussing the work with her assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), Maria has to also adjust to acting opposite a new up-and-coming actress, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), and ends up using her time in preparation for the role as time spent also considering her own approach to her career, her life, and her relationships with some other key people, including Valentine.
At a shade over two hours in length, Assayas is in no hurry here, which is as it should be. The central character is herself delaying things, plagued with doubt and insecurity as she considers a big step that will draw a lot of attention to where she is in her career. There's also more weight to the decision because of the death of the director, Wilhelm, who helped her get that big break. In fact, Maria was on her way to accept an award on his behalf when she learns of his death. There's musings on mortality, a thought or two about certain immortality (certainly in terms of powerful performances that create a reputation to ripple through the decades), and the constant struggle of battling against the ravages of time, particularly in a business that often values youth and beauty above so many other qualities.
Binoche is at her best in the main role, as fierce and strong as ever, with moments of vulnerability that take place either fleetingly, or very much hidden away from those she fears seeing her in a state of weakness. Stewart works great alongside her (and Assayas would have faith in her again, giving her a fantastic role in the quietly effective Personal Shopper), the relationship between the two an interesting and complex one, muddied by the scenes in which they work through the play together. Moretz is . . . well, she's okay, but the weakest of the three central females. I like Moretz a lot, but she seems to have struggled in the transition from talented child star in the right roles to an actress with a fully-rounded skillset.
Easy to dismiss as languid and pretentious, Clouds Of Sils Maria is certainly one that will be appreciated best by those who are closer in age to Binoche than Moretz. It's a character study, superficially, but it's also a meditation on some things we all experience as we wander through life, and that could include grief (not just for the loss of loved ones, but for the loss of past glories, the loss of time, the loss of moments that we didn't know enough about to fully appreciate at the time, and more) as well as the unhalting march of the minutes, hours, days, and years.