While the Avengers thunderously consume the cinematic marketplace, Clouds of Sils Maria quietly tucks and rolls into view, complete with a winking analysis of its Marvel-ous competition. A tale of two actresses and one personal assistant, Clouds subtly dramatizes the existential questions facing show folk in an uncomfortable landscape crowded with superhero movies (that's right, subtly: I'm looking at you, Birdman).
While pitying the poor movie star may seem gauche, writer-director Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours, Carlos) tenderly drops us into the world of middle-aged actress Maria Enders and conspires with the actress who plays her (Juliette Binoche); together, they stoke sympathy for a woman whose past successes only complicate her present attempts. The film opens on a train taking Maria and her personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) to a Zurich-based festival to accept a lifetime achievement award on behalf of the playwright-director who launched Maria's career, but a phone call in transit informs the pair that honoree Wilhelm Melchior has died, turning festival to funeral.
Melchior's death poors salt into the already reopened wounds that are Maria's memories of twenty-years-earlier triumph (in Melchior's two-woman play "Maloja Snake") and complicated personal relationships with her elders (Melchior and her "Maloja Snake" co-star, who died in a possibly suicidal car crash). To make matters worse, an insistent director wears down Maria's defenses until she agrees to starring in a revival of "Maloja Snake," but now, distressingly, in the elder role, opposite 19-year-old movie starlet Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz). And so Maria and Valentine repair to Melchior's Swiss Alps retreat to power-play and run lines for a powerful play about power plays.
Assayas' house-of-mirrors scenario enables pondering of relative age and looming mortality, while touching on the relative roles of human-scale drama and Marvel action pictures, in which both Enders and Ellis have appeared (the former in an X-Men movie, the latter in something called "Time Shift," which cheekily name-checks Avengers: Age of Ultron's Scarlet Witch). Valentine defends "Time Shift" (“there’s no less truth than in a more supposedly serious film”) while Enders complains, "I could feel my brain cells dying one by one."
Assayas and the ever-brilliant Binoche get at the byplay of vulnerability and ego inherent in the actor's life, as well as the ritual self-torture, the soul sacrifice, that can be a serious actor's process of wiping away personal defenses and channeling deepest insecurities. Meanwhile, Valentine awkwardly tries to be everything to Maria: career advisor, acting coach, therapist, friend, and perhaps something even deeper, like a surrogate daughter or lover to the otherwise untethered Enders.
Through it all, the clouds of Sils Maria slowly snake, the valley phenomenon representing the ineffability of life itself. The clouds' beautiful mystery may signify pure nature or something more spiritual, a mystic river in the sky. Though one character offers the gentle deflation "Theater is only theater," Assayas implies that what transpires between the characters of Clouds of Sils Maria, between artists and art, and between art and audiences contains its own beautiful mystery that's nourishing, maddening, and essential.