Olivier Assayas always makes something new, different and thought-provoking with each film. Summer Hours examined the intersection of art and function, Irma Vep looked at the psychology of acting, Something in the Air explored revolt in cinema and Clouds of Sils Maria continues this trend by looking at age and death.
Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is an older actress who is offered a role in a play she previously performed in her youth, but now she will be cast as the older lead. Her assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), tries to convince her that the role will be good for her, but Maria only becomes more insecure when she hears that she’d be playing against Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz), a child who is adored even though she often acts childish.
These three female character all represent different points in time for women. There’s the youth and beauty of Jo-Ann, the peak of beauty with Valentine, and then the winter of beauty with Maria. The youth enjoy themselves and their beauty while the old worry over aging and the impending sense of death that looms over them.
There’s a sense in which the old want to control and own the beauty of the youth. It’s a central idea to the play Maria is offered to lead in. Her character controls a much younger woman in a dominating lesbian relationship. Sex becomes a sort of way of owning youth, capturing some of its beauty by deriving pleasure from its body.
In the real world, Maria also owns Valentine to an extent, not in a sexual way, but professionally. Valentine is essentially a servant, managing Maria’s life and dealing with a lot of the tedious day to day details while Maria is caught up in her narcissism of self-worry and angst over being old. The prestige of age becomes another tool for controlling and capturing beauty.
Where the film doesn’t go, oddly enough, is how cinema is this tool that captures beauty. Even though Juliette Binoche is up in age and beginning to show a lot of those marks, cinema is a way to bottle up moments of her beauty. She can go back and see her beauty in films like Three Colors: Blue or The Lovers on the Bridge. Cinema makes beauty timeless.
Instead, Assayas explores how beauty and envy affect the dynamic of female relationships, whether they be sexual, professional, or personal. Perhaps, like humanity, Assayas sees cinema as something that has age on it. Beauty fades, cinema is dying, all must come to an end under the sun.
It’s hard to peg down Assayas’s films on a first viewing. This is a film ripe for a second viewing, a mark of many great films. In an age more and more fascinated with the beauty of youth, even to the point of sexualization of underaged girls, people who can control and own beauty become powerful. And yet that power can’t satisfy, it can’t stave off death, it can’t restore one’s youth. Physical beauty is ultimately empty, but that won’t stop the pursuit of youth.
© 2016 James Blake Ewing