Clouds of Sils Maria is an intricately conceived rumination on the passage of time, ageing, being female, being famous, and for that matter, being gradually becoming obsolete. The newest film from the prominent, Paris born, French director Olivier Assayas, it was nominated for numerous awards at film festivals, including the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014. I watched it at TIFF last September, and gladly again at the indie theatre when the film came to our city a few months ago.
A middle-aged celebrated screen and stage actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is on a train to Zurich with her personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) to attend a tribute to the playwright Wilhelm Melchior, who had cast her in her breakout role in one of his plays Maloja Snake some twenty years ago. At that time, Maria played a manipulative young office girl Sigrid who had an emotive relationship with her older office boss Helena, driving her to commit suicide.
While on the train to Zurich, Maria gets the news that Melchior has died, an apparent suicide due to a terminal illness. When arriving Switzerland, Melchior’s widow Rosa (Angela Winkler) lets Maria and Valentine stay in her idyllic house in the Swiss Alps, in the Sils Maria locale, while she tries to get away from the sad memories of her late husband. In that serene natural setting, Valentine helps Maria practice her lines for a revival of the play Maloja Snake, re-mounted as a tribute to the late playwright. But this time, Maria is to play the older character Helena, while a wildly popular, scandalous young star Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz, the rising star in real life) is to play Sigrid.
If you have the patience to read up to here, you likely can see the parallels: Maria and Valentine – Helena and Sigrid, as well you probably can guess the feelings Maria goes through in this role reversal, for now she is twenty plus years older, and the loss of Melchior could well be the foreshadow of an imminent path everyone has to trod, famous or not. The film is an intricately woven, multi-layered construct, with thought-provoking dialogues and incisive subtexts; the mirroring effect is brilliant especially the scenes when Valentine helps Maria practice her lines and accept the role reversal, from the young to the older.
If you appreciate the characterization and the superb performance of the actresses, you would not only bear with but savour the complexity of the dialogues and scenes. Instead of a litmus test for the viewer’s patience, the complications and layered meaning are a testament of some fine screenwriting and directing. Assayas’ signature realism and naturalistic style works marvellously well; in some scenes towards the end, the honesty is harsh and biting.
Juliette Binoche always delivers. Here she is an ageing celebrity and star, her outward coolness masks tumultuous insecurities. She is totally natural in her role. Viewers may even feel she’s not acting at all.
But my highest praise has to go to Kristen Stewart. I admit I’m probably one of the few who have not watched, or read, any of the Twilight movies or books. So this is my first Stewart film, and I’m most impressed. She lives and breathes her character Valentine, assistant to Maria Enders. From juggling several smart phones while balancing herself on a moving train, to helping Maria practice her lines adjusting to the older role, Stewart has shown she has mastered the needed nuance, intelligence and sensitivity for her character. She has portrayed convincingly a complex female who, despite her efficiency and strength at her job as assistant to a famous but fast fading star, is herself vulnerable as a female with deep, inner yearnings and conflicts muffled only by her outward sensibility.
With her role as Valentine, Stewart went on to win the 2015 César Award for Best Supporting Actress this February in Paris, the first American actress to win the prestigious French acting award which is equivalent to the Oscar here.
Chloë Grace Moretz aptly plays the youthful, and bratty, rising star Jo-Ann Ellis. She embodies the young and famous, a celeb whom Valentine admires, but whom Maria can never understand as to how the young measures talent or shoots to the peak of popularity despite (or maybe because) of scandals. I’m sure what’s mind boggling to her could well be the thoughts in many a mind of the, alas, fading bunch of old school, superbly trained actors and iconic performers of our days.
The Largo from George Frideric Handel’s opera Serse is poignant, a solemn and grand diction of existential angst as Maria confronts the loss of her beloved and respected artistic mentor, and her own fading glory. Interestingly, the music reminds me of Kon Ichikawa’s The Makioka Sisters (1983), wherein this piece of music also appears, bringing out the poignancy of the passage of time, the erosion of the familiar, the end of an era, of traditions, and of treasured values.
This brings us to the very title of the film. The clouds of the Sils Maria mountain range in the Swiss Alps is famous for their sudden appearance like a snake curling and weaving around the mountains. Many have climbed the peaks only to be disappointed as the clouds may not appear while they are there. In the scene towards the end, just as Maria turns and walks away, the clouds come into view for us audience but not her, indeed, like a snake slithers silently in and in a few seconds, moves out of sight again. Ah… the ephemeral of it all. The ultimate mirroring of nature and life.
Probably the best film I’ve seen so far this year. A film that deserves – and requires – multiple viewings.
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
This is my last entry to Paris in July 2015 blogging event hosted by Tamara of Thyme for Tea.
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