Clouds of Sils Maria

Few things are as painful to the performance artist as the inevitable process of aging. Hollywood presents an extreme case, magnifying the flaws and surgical mishaps of even its brightest ingenues as a kind of entertainment for everyone else. But year-by-year and movie-by-movie, actors and actresses the world over must come to terms with the subtly and ever fading image of themselves. Maria Enders, the slightly-skewed Juliette Binoche proxy played by Juliette Binoche in Clouds of Sils Maria, is dealing with exactly this when – on a train through the European countryside to present a tribute to her mentor, the playwright Wilheim Melchior – she learns that he has died. So many years ago, Wilheim had launched Maria’s career and now, with her tribute to become an impromptu eulogy, the circle of time collapses flatly back on Maria, who is forced to confront her career in a temporal context that places her closer to its end than its beginning.

The film’s French writer-director, Olivier Assayas, is attuned to the forces of modernity in ways few of his peers are. From the narcissistic pomposity of the feared-terrorist saga Carlos (2010) to the geo-economic circumstances of the familial inheritors to a matriarch’s private art collection that made Summer Hours (L’heure d’ete, 2008) so rewarding and humane, Assayas has found ways to take repeated or otherwise tried filmic templates and re-appropriate them to become conversations on today. Clouds of Sils Maria is no different, consciously playing as Maria’s younger, savvier foils the nowhere-near-as-revered actresses Kristen Stewart and Chloe Grace Moretz. The former plays her intelligent, intuitive personal assistant Val; the latter a bratty, spoilt trainwreck of a franchise star who, like the best of them, is remarkably effective at using her menace to elevate her aura of celebrity.

The metatext could hardly end without having the Assayas-esque director figure Lars Eidinger (Klaus Diesterweg) step in and suggest that now is the perfect time for Enders to remake Maloja Snake: the play that made her famous. Now, however, she’s asked to fill the role of Helena: an older woman driven to suicide by the young, manipulative Sigrid — the crux being that it was the role of Sigrid and not Helena that made her a young star. With a headlong, brash confidence, Enders accepts this challenge to both her personal and professional status and its intrinsically suggestive commentary, retreating to Sils Maria at the behest of Wilheim’s widow Rosa (Angela Winkler) to prepare for the upcoming production.

That’s about as complicated as the setup gets, but the bulk of the film, which is simply set in the picturesque Swiss countryside, is packed with ideas and insights. This is thanks in no small part to the fact that the dense performances by Binoche and Stewart as her reading partner (and Sigrid stand-in) are so good. The pair alternate tense rehearsals of the script, so emotionally loaded because with every line Maria becomes more acutely self-conscious of her fallibility, with majestic walks through the hills that back the Melchior house. Elegantly presented by cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, the landscape sits as a presence of dormant mystery for both Maria and Val, its unique topological makeup releasing the Maloja Snake of the title of Wilheim’s play: not a snake at all, but rather an elusive and phenomenal moving cloud formation that ‘snakes’ through the valley, occuring when the weather conditions are improbably, but absolutely, just right.

The mountains that give rise to the clouds are ever present just beyond the windows of the house, and the co-dependent pair of women repeatedly direct their walks to finish at an elevated vantage point known for being the best place to take the cloud phenomena in. This repeated motif means that the snake can’t help but take on an allegorical import to the story, and especially because (without wanting to spoil anything) the circumstances that give rise to Maria finally witnessing it pay more than homage to the potent affect of Michelangelo Antonioni in his prime: the bold, game-changing younger Antonioni of L’Avventura, L’eclisse, and Blow-Up. We never see more than a glimpse of how Maria eventually takes the stage as Helena, and even less of Moretz’s character performing as Sigrid. But the lingering visual and imaginative force of the Clouds of Sils Maria, so beautiful, so pure, so unaffected by the powers of mortality, materiality, of time and age, make Assayas’ conclusion just fine.

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