Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is an international film star and stage actress. She travels with a loyal young American assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart). Twenty years earlier, Maria had a break when she was cast and successfully performed as a young girl "Sigrid" in both the play and film versions of Maloja Snake by Wilhelm Melchior, a Swiss playwright who is now elderly. The play centers on the tempestuous relationship between "Sigrid" and "Helena," a vulnerable older woman. Helena commits suicide after "Sigrid" takes advantage of her, and dumps her.
While traveling to Zurich to accept an award on behalf of Wilhelm, and planning to visit him at home the following day at his house in Sils Maria – a remote settlement in the Alps – Maria learns of his death. His widow Rosa later confides that Wilhelm had ended his life and had been terminally ill. During the awards ceremony, Maria is approached by Klaus Diesterweg, a popular theatre director. He wants to persuade her to appear on stage in Maloja Snake again, but this time in the role of Helena, the older woman.
Maria is torn and reluctantly accepts. To prepare for the role, she accepts Rosa's offer to stay at the Melchiors' house in Sils Maria. Rosa is leaving to escape her memories of Wilhelm. Maria's discussions with Valentine and their read-throughs of the play's scenes evoke uncertainty about the nature of their relationship. A young American actress, 19-year-old Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), has been chosen to interpret the role of "Sigrid." Researching her on Google and the internet, Valentine tells Maria, who is out of touch from social media, that Ellis has been involved in numerous scandals.
Questions soon multiply regarding aging, time, culture and the blurring line between the "Sigrid"/"Helena" and the Valentine/Maria relationships. Maria and Jo-Ann finally meet, but their relationship is complicated. Jo-Ann appears to be implicated in the attempted suicide of the wife of her new (and married) boyfriend.
During their time at Sils Maria, Maria and Valentine spend much of their days hiking in the Alps. On a final such outing, they hike to the Maloja Pass – to observe a fascinating early morning cloud phenomenon that appears low in the pass (the "Maloja Snake" of the play's title, but also the "Clouds of Sils Maria" in the film's title). The disconsolate Valentine disappears without explanation, never to reappear.
Six weeks later, a young filmmaker visits Maria by appointment five minutes before the curtain rises on the opening night of Maloja Snake in London. Maria seems preoccupied, so near to curtain rise, and dismisses his suggested ideas about the proposed film role he is offering her as "too abstract for me". Then she is on stage, smoking and waiting for "Sigrid."
Principal photography of Clouds of Sils Maria began on 22 August 2013 and ended on 4 October. The film was shot on location in the titular village of Sils Maria, Switzerland as well as Zurich; Leipzig, Germany; and South Tyrol, Italy.
In an interview, Olivier Assayas said that all the film's interiors were shot in Germany. The production moved to Sils Maria to film the hiking scenes, and moved again to film the scenes in and around the chalet in South Tyrol.
The Chanel company debuted in film financing with this production. In addition it supplied the actresses with clothes, jewelry, accessories and makeup, while also providing some of the budget to allow Olivier Assayas to fulfill his dream of shooting a film on 35-mm film instead of digitally.
Assayas has described the fictional play Maloja Snake as a "condensed, brutalized version" of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, a play by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (it was later adapted as a film of the same name).
The American title of the film is Clouds of Sils Maria. In France the film was released as Sils Maria, Assayas' original name.
The first trailer for the film was released on 22 May 2014. Another international trailer followed on 7 July.
The film was selected to compete for the Palme d'Or in the main competition section at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival on 23 May 2014. It also screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and New York Film Festival.
Clouds of Sils Maria premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to positive reviews.
Robbie Collin of The Daily Telegraph stated, "This is a complex, bewitching and melancholy drama, another fearlessly intelligent film from Assayas." He said, "Binoche plays the role with elegance and melancholic wit – her character slips between fiction and fact in a way that recalls her role in Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy. But it’s Stewart who really shines here. Valentine is probably her best role to date: she’s sharp and subtle, knowable and then suddenly distant, and a late, surprising twist is handled with a brilliant lightness of touch."
Peter Debruge of Variety said it was Assayas' "daring rejoinder, a multi-layered, femme-driven meta-fiction that pushes all involved—including next-gen starlets Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz — to new heights." Matt Risley of Total Film called it "an elegant, intelligent drama, enlivened by strong performances by Binoche, Moretz and especially Stewart, for whom this will surely usher in a new dawn."
Stephanie Zacharek of The Village Voice wrote: "But the movie's true center, the meteorological phenomenon that makes it so pleasurable to watch, is the half-prickly, half-affectionate interplay between Binoche and Stewart." Ben Sachs of Chicago Reader wrote: "This recalls Ingmar Bergman's chamber dramas in the intensity and psychological complexity of the central relationship, yet the filmmaking is breathtakingly fluid, evoking a sense of romantic abandon."
Columbia Daily Spectator critic Natalia Winkelman wrote: "The film is an uber self-referential study in meta art, in which the identity and background of the film actors dynamically inform our reading of their roles. Reminiscent of the recent Oscar-winning “Birdman,” Assayas’ story centers on an aging actor struggling to find her place in a changing industry. ... The best part of the film is its digital awareness—in addition to serene sequences of cloudy Alps imagery, Assayas doesn’t shy away from clipping in FaceTime sessions, YouTube clips, and Google image searches as Maria clicks away on her iPad."
However, Kyle Smith of the New York Post writes: "A backstage drama that has all the sizzle of a glass of water resting on the windowsill, [...] Clouds of Sils Maria mistakes lack of dramatic imagination for smoldering subtlety." Richard Brody from The New Yorker writes: “Clouds of Sils Maria, as the title suggests, is a sort of travelogue, a commercial for European cultural tourism, and, as such, it’s the perfect image of the very system that created it. There’s almost no independent filmmaking in France, and there isn’t supposed to be. If there were, it would stand as a threat to the system that, by way of training, enticements, and restrictions, is the source of the comforts that the movie depicts and that the movie reflects. The mediocrity is stifling.”
The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports a "Certified Fresh" score of 89% based on 150 reviews with an average rating of 7.6 out of 10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Bolstered by a trio of powerful performances from its talented leads, Clouds of Sils Maria is an absorbing, richly detailed drama with impressive depth and intelligence." On Metacritic, which assigns a weighted mean rating out of 100 reviews from film critics, the film holds an average score of 78, based on 41 reviews, indicating a "generally favorable reviews" response.
Clouds of Sils Maria opened in France on 20 August 2014 in 150 theaters for a $3,663 per theater average and a box office total of $549,426 as of 24 August 2014. The film expanded to 195 theaters in its second week of release, and the box office increased to an estimated $1,150,090.
Clouds of Sils Maria opened in the United States on 10 April 2015 in three theaters and grossed $69,729 on its opening weekend for an average of $23,243 per. As of 4 June 2015, the film has grossed an estimated $1,743,577 after expanding theaters.
The film won the Louis Delluc Prize for Best Film in December 2014. The film received six César Award nominations including best film, best director, best actress, best original screenplay, and best cinematography, while Stewart won for best supporting actress, becoming the first American actress to win a César and the second American actor to win after Adrien Brody in 2003."Kowalski" by Primal Scream
"Largo de Xerxes" – Georg Friedrich Handel
"Canon and Gigue in D Major for 3 Violins and Basso Continuo" – Johann Pachelbel
"Paavin of Albarti (Alberti)" – Innocentio Alberti (performed by Hesperion XXI)
"Sonata No. 2 in D Minor" – Georg Friedrich Handel
"Sonata No. 2 in B-Flat Major for Violin and Harp, Op. 16: II. Adagio" - Louis Spohr
"Trio for Violin, Cello and Harp in E minor: III. Rondo" - Louis Spohr
The film was released on DVD and Digital HD by Paramount Home Media on July 14, 2015; the company also handles the digital entertainment sales, with IFC handling the video on demand sales.
The Criterion Collection released a DVD and Blu Ray edition on 28 June 2016.