How equal is the relationship between mentor and pupil, master and servant--or rather, is one person's struggle more interesting than the other? The immediate instinct of most people would be to say, "No, they're both people and therefore both as potentially interesting as people can be." 2015's Clouds of Sils Maria enters into dialogue with this notion, challenging it, as we watch an older actress cast in the role of elder she played opposite to as a young actress. It's a nice, somewhat academic movie on age, identity, and perspective that pays tribute to Ingmar Bergman in more ways than one.
Juliette Binoche plays Maria, a famous and revered actress who is associated with a playwright and director named Wilhelm Melchior. Melchior wrote the play and made the film that made Maria famous, his character, like Bergman, involved in both theatre and film and Maria might be taken as a version of Harriet Andersson whose appearance in Bergman's Summer with Monika defined and launched her career.
At a tribute to Melchior, Maria meets up with another actor associated with the director, Henryk (Hanns Zischler), who seems to be based on Max von Sydow. The film uses these stand-ins to make some commentary on Bergman's life, work, and relationships. Melchior commits suicide and his widow begs Maria to keep this secret, making me wonder if we're meant to ponder whether Bergman committed suicide. Henryk is self-absorbed and abusive and is said to have tended not to have understood the material Melchior gave him to work with, which may be a commentary on von Sydow who moved to Hollywood as soon as he could where his film choices have rarely rivalled the artistic heights of Bergman's films.
Maria is approached by a young director who wants her to play the role of elder in a new version of the film that made her famous. This story is of a business woman and her ambitious assistant who seduces and abandons her in the interest of pursuing her own career. Maria reads lines for this with her assistant, Valentine, played by Kristen Stewart. Neither character remarks on the obvious parallel, which becomes a crucial clue for something that happens later in the film. But Valentine provides Maria with a conduit to contemporary young adult culture, passionately trying to explain to Maria the virtues of superhero movies.
Not only did I find Kristen Stewart's performance interesting, I liked it better than Binoche's, which seemed comparatively self-conscious, which may have been intended. But Stewart seemed like a real young person, eager to engage with a respected colleague on intellectual topics.
Their discussions and the nature of identity that becomes involved with the discourse is in a sense very Bergman. Though it feels less like an inspired director paying tribute to Bergman and more like a very bright student who's made this film as a final project in a class on Bergman. The film doesn't do anything as strange or challenging as Bergman does in Cries and Whispers or Through a Glass Darkly. It's by no means bad, though. It's perhaps unfortunate that it invites so many comparisons to Bergman, not being a work of unparalleled genius shouldn't count against it. It is perhaps comforting to know that, in reality, at least, the elder's work is far more vibrant and alive than the acolyte's.