Clouds of Sils Maria July 20, 2015
There comes a point in the life of a middle-aged actor when young self-confidence turns into wrinkled doubt. With the exception of the Meryls and the Daniels, a lack of relevance can mean roles suited to complement the likes of more exciting, recent actors — the fame captured earlier, perhaps by an Oscar or a culturally significant movie, can eventually mean nothing, as magazines get tired of your face and the public finds a new personality to live vicariously through.
Film doesn’t touch on this issue very often — the actor needed for the philandering generally is a has-been themselves, thus unwilling to play the part — but the best examples, like Bette Davis’ career shattering All About Eve or Gena Rowlands’ underrated filmography peak Opening Night, work so well because the actors playing actors going through a prolonged existential crisis seem to be putting a part of themselves into the role, whether they mean to or not. It can be difficult to admit you’re Bridget Fonda and not Jennifer Lawrence.
Juliette Binoche, one of the greatest actresses of her generation, has never seemed to face career troubles in the way Joan Crawford did in her fifties, the way Ava Gardner did the second she turned forty. Binoche, if anything, has become more engaging of a presence as she ages, continuously drowning herself in challenging roles which only cement her status as a transcendent talent. Her films generally aren’t blockbusters, but so respected is she among cinephiles and critics that she, in no doubt, will live on as a legend (though she, in some ways, already is).
So Clouds of Sils Maria comes as a surprise in her career, not because the part isn’t arduous but because the idea of Binoche emulating Bette Davis seems preposterous. Whereas Davis made a series of turkeys before hitting a high mark with All About Eve, Binoche has never made a project, entertaining or not, which didn’t earn her some sort of respect. But an actress doesn’t need to be the part to play it with remarkable pathos, and Binoche, unsurprisingly, give one of the finest performances of her career.
In Clouds of Sils Maria, Binoche is Maria Enders, a French actress at the climax of her long, gigantically commendable career. She found her breakthrough twenty years earlier through her portrayal of Sigrid in Maloja Snake. The role is so iconic in her career that it bears the same sort of luster Séverine gave to Catherine Deneuve in Belle De Jour. The playwright behind both the screen and stage versions of Maloja Snake is Maria’s Howard Hawks to her Lauren Bacall. If not for his early guidance, she would hardly be the woman she is today. So when news travels that the man has died, Maria finds herself crippled by self-doubt, her age and relevance suddenly revealing themselves to be more fragile than she ever knew they were.
During a ceremony meant to pay tribute to the man, Maria is offered a part in a revival of Maloja Snake. Only this time, she won’t be playing Sigrid — she will be playing Helena, an older woman who Sigrid romances and ultimately drives to suicide. Maria is understandably reluctant (she doesn’t want to ruin her cherished memories), but she accepts, realizing that she doesn’t have much to lose. But as she goes through agonizing readings with her assistant (Kristen Stewart) and finds herself alarmed by the casting of a troubled young actress (Chloë Grace Moretz) for the part of Sigrid, it becomes ever apparent that the play is beginning to reflect Maria’s life more troublingly than she’d like to admit.
As Maria slips through the cracks burdening the sidewalks of the real and the fake, Clouds of Sils Maria grows stronger, more tumultuously mysterious. A fascinating drama of clinking façades, subtle insecurities, and confessionals, the film has all the makings of a juicy backstage drama, but Olivier Assayas, in a career highlight, chooses profound subtlety over soap operatic ticks. Dialogue covers the premises like a silk blanket draping a leather love seat, ever traveling, but details, minute or revelatory, flesh out the compelling slabs of character exposés and make them thrillingly human. Reminiscent of the performances which adorned the films of John Cassavetes, the figures in Clouds of Sils Maria leave their innermost insecurities out for us to feast on.
The dynamic between Binoche and Stewart is what makes Clouds of Sils Maria the masterpiece that it is — Assayas’ writing provides them with immensely intelligent conversations to chew on, but such cerebral passages can only mean something when in the hands of performers delicate with their material and knowing of their abilities.
Toward the beginning of the film, Binoche, short-haired and covered in Chanel, looks like the embodiment of glamour, the kind of star who covers Vogue and doesn’t seem human or emotional in the process. Scenes later (when the film transitions into a more secluded setting), her hair shortens into something mannish, her makeup cleaned off, her clothing meant for comfort rather than looks. This transformation is fundamental in the believability of the film, as it strips away all distractions and really showing us how Maria (and possibly Binoche) feels inside — worn out, defenseless, melancholy.
Stewart, as Maria’s assistant Val, never undergoes a conversion as jarring as Binoche. But the way she stays a grungy, enigmatic figurehead of Maria’s faith makes her an intellectual counterpoint to the apprehension of her employer. As the relationship between Maria and Val begins to fog out the rest of the noise seen earlier in Clouds of Sils Maria, the more potent the film becomes. In exquisite scenes set in the barren, titular region of Sils Maria, Maria rehearses for Maloja Snake, she as Helena and Val as Sigrid. The sequences are so thoroughly convincing and so vague about when they’re ending that we begin to question the reality of the situation — how much does Maria see in Helena, how much does Val see in Sigrid, and vice versa?
Maloja Snake’s story is nearly parallel to the one lived in by Maria and Val. Though Maria doesn’t quite see her assistant in the romantic way Helena fancies Sigrid, she depends on her. She has few friends, hardly interacts with the public, and isn’t quite sure how to express herself outside of acting. With Val, an old soul more mature than her age would suggest, she is able to voice her hesitations loudly, without a filter.
But it is suggested that Val isn’t as fond of Maria as Maria is of her. She humors her through deep conversation, but how much of it does she consider to be a part of her job and how much of it is she actually invested in? The way Val remains an ambiguous figure throughout the film makes her all the more fascinating. When she disappears like Lea Massari in L’Avventura toward the conclusion, we can only speculate her existence. Stewart, who won the French equivalent of the Oscar, sledgehammers any questions regarding her acting talents. I’ve always found her to be a magnetic presence when without Twilight in her clutches, and films like Clouds of Sils Maria suggest an actress uninhibited and unafraid.
One of the best films of the year, Clouds of Sils Maria further proves why Assayas and Binoche are incomparable talents of the silver screen. It’s a classic in the making, a gem in the filmographies of all the talents involved. A