In the Russian theatre, it is not uncommon to find an older actress cast in the ingénue role of Nina. A smart director understands that the actress who can play Nina in the first act is rarely capable of understanding the character’s transformation in the fifth act. However, an actress who can play the fifth act is also suitable for the first, especially in the theatre, where age is not such a damning factor as it is in the movies.
There have been more bad Ninas than good ones, and those actresses, in older years, generally go on to play Arkadina, who is not exactly an mirrored image of an aged Nina, but is more precisely the person Nina might have been had her fame been less transitory. It is an easier role to play, as the character is more transparent than Nina.
In Olivier Assayas’ 2014 film, “Clouds of Sils Maria,” Juliette Binoche plays the fictional actress Maria Enders, who became famous twenty years earlier in a play in which she played the part of Sigrid, a younger woman who drives an older woman, Helena, to suicide. Now she is asked to play Helena in a revival of the play. Enders, who still sees herself as Sigrid, at first refuses the part, but eventually realizes that she has become more like Helena than she is willing to admit, and fears that Valentine, her personal assistant, played by Kristin Stewart, may well be her own Sigrid.
If there is a flaw in the film, it is that Assayas is a film director, yet sets his story in the theatre, where it is not unusual for an actress to revive a role twenty years after creating it. It would make more sense if Enders had been asked to play the older role in a film remake of an earlier film, rather than a stage revival of an earlier play. For one thing, the marketability of a stage revival would be dependent upon the actress playing the role that made her famous. In film, the idea of casting her in the older role is brilliant, and Assayas is thinking like a film director here. But “Clouds of Sils Maria” is such an exceptional film that this flaw, if it indeed be a flaw, is easily overlooked.
Lest I be misunderstood, let me emphasize here that Sigrid bears no resemblance to “The Seagull’s” Nina. I used that example to make a point about casting, not character. Sigrid is more akin to the Eve Harrington of Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1950 film, “All About Eve,” or Karin from Fassbinder’s 1972 “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.” Neither does Kristen Stewart’s Valentine parallel Sigrid. It is only when she runs lines with Maria Enders that she seems to, from Enders’ paranoid point of view, take on the characteristics of her youthful nemesis
“Clouds of Sils Maria” would be a total pleasure if it had nothing to offer except the joy of watching Binoche and Stewart acting together. The relationship of a famous person to her personal assistant has never been so richly realized. Watching them, we believe this is the way things really are in the heavily shielded world of public figures. And perhaps this is the way it is. Stewart has a job in which she needs to be both invisible and always present, the closest confidant and at the same time a distant stranger. She accomplishes this so deftly that watching her is like watching a tightrope dancer, and we are in constant apprehension that she may take a mis-step and fall at any time.
But this relationship is only one aspect of Assayas’ deep and complex film, which addresses the manner in which one generation tramples another in order that history may advance its tale. Many scenes take place in the Swiss Alps, photographed in a bland digital beauty that is a dramatic contrast to the stunning black and white images excerpted from Arnold Fanck’s 1924 short,”Das Wolkenphanomen von Maloja.” This subtle jab at the cheapening of cinematography is developed more obviously in the seriousness Valentine takes in spaceship soap operas featuring girls with super powers. it is obvious that Assayas believes the idiots have inherited the world.