Kristen Stewart last showed her chops head to head with Julianne Moore in Still Alice; Moore won an Oscar. I don’t think Juliette Binoche is going to win an Oscar for going head-to-head with Stewart for Clouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas new enigmatic, occasionally frustrating but ultimately wonderful new film, and I think the reason is that Binoche has been so wonderful, so genuine – the very embodiment of a skilfully natural actress – that we take her talent for granted these days.
Such thematic stuff is all part of the sinew of Clouds, which, when boiled down to its essence, is an examination of the private lives of international female movie stars. But on the surface – and this is the movie’s quite brilliant trick – for the most part it seems to be about the relationship an assistant has with their boss.
Stewart plays Valentine, a completely Euro-ised American young woman, the assistant to (big big big) movie star Maria Enders (Binoche, obviously). Valentine is a brilliant assistant; she knows how to drink what her boss is drinking, dress as she’s needed to dress, smoke when is appropriate, be cool when cool is right and be uncool when uncool is right – to know when to be slave, comrade, date, friend, and slave again – often in a day. She manages three phones and two lives. Her own life is not entirely given over to that of her employer – she can ask for a night to rendez-vous with the hot young photographer who has just shot a session with her boss – but it essentially is. She’s an American in Europe and seems to be loving it.
Through a relatively uncontrived set of circumstances, a mirroring effect is set up among Valentine, Maria, and a hot young American movie star named Ann (shades – deliberately, I’m positive – of All About Eve) – played by Chloë Grace Moretz. But lest you assume things are going to get salacious or melodramatic, they don’t. This film is shot on an even keel, and smells deeply of truth. I don’t know what movie stars and their assistants are like, but Assayas does, and so do Binoche and Stewart: I stayed for the credits, and they both had real assistants, and Stewart had a bodyguard to boot. Stewart’s performance as Binoche’s assistant is brilliant, and she also essentially acts as her bodyguard: I hope Stewart’s retinue petit was happy with her performance. They should be.