This movie allows audiences to peer into the theater industry
Preface: This review is full of spoliers
Clouds of Sils Maria is about how we come to grips with age. It all comes full-circle in the last few minutes of the film when the writer/director who approaches Juliette Binoche’s character, Maria, tries to convince her to play the lead in his new sci-fi film. As she mulls it over and argues with him, she’s coming to grips with what that would mean.
Maria is still stuck on the fact that she was once a young actress who played Sigrid in Maloja Snake and now she has been asked to play Helena, the older woman who’s motivation may be that she no longer has one.
Should she strangle herself with memories of her past, just as Maria committed suicide at the end of Maloja Snake? Or can she accept the fact that the industry is changing just as she is?
At the end of the play’s first run, in front of a full house, the writer/director encapsulates the final resolution to this most serious issue:
“She has no age, or else, she’s every age at once.”
In the beginning of the film, Klaus, the stand-in director of the revised version of the play that Chloë Grace Moretz and Binoche wrestle throughout Clouds of Sils Maria to see through to fruition, finds that Maria is an older version of Sigrid. He says they are the same person.
It’s like image of the snake eating its tail. She is born, she grows, she flourishes, then allows her emotions to swallow her whole as she gives into thoughts of her inevitable death to allow a younger specimen–or in this light, actress–to take her place.
There are many layers to the film, if you can imagine.
The movie opens with Kristen Stewart (Valentine, Maria’s personal assistant) swapping a Blackberry for an iPhone, juggling the multitudinous tasks assigned to her by the aging actress. We come to find out a close friend, and previous director, of Maria’s has died. Wilhelm was the one who walked her through her character as Sigrid 20 years before.
Cue subtle scenes of a frosty tundra in the Swiss Alps that paint a picture of another side of grief, that of dealing with the grave reality of death.
The overall feel of the film is indubitably French, as is Binoche’s heritage, with a melancholy air not unlike the meaning behind the title of the film itself. “Sils Maria” is the name given to a type of ominous cloud that appears as a snake gliding around the river valley near Wilhem’s home; a superstition that warns of bad weather.
The story is fascinating. Olivier Assayas taps into more than a few urban legends surrounding the theatre industry, while giving us an inside scoop on what it’s like to run lines with someone who may just be speaking the truth while simultaneously playing the part.
Binoche is brilliant. She has this ability to jump into different emotions at the drop of a hat. At times, I wasn’t sure whether she was furious with Stewart for considering leaving her or she was practicing her script. Stewart plays herself, in my opinion; letting her tattoos show, wearing glasses, and keeping her hair somewhat greasy all come together in a package I perceive to be who she really is off-screen.
One compelling scene permeates the bounds between fiction and reality most arguably, when Stewart leaves Binoche at the mountaintop overlooking the valley. You don’t understand until the end of the movie that Sigrid (Moretz) leaves Maria without a word in Maloja Snake.
Being of the rare breed belonging to the meta-fiction genre, it’s difficult to not allow yourself to become too engrossed in an overarching sense of being played, while you’re watching players act out their parts. The epilogue calls to question the subjectivity of individual theatre-goers, as a reporter asks the director if he expects to retain focus on his play without outside distraction from the immediate scandal surrounding the leading lady, Moretz’s character.
In my opinion, one would hope that the individuals that people the audience are more of the high-brow ilk, not prone to gossip. “If this came out, it would be a tsunami,” Val says, to Maria’s confused dismay. She continues with, “Welcome to the real world.”
Every writer/director’s dream would be to give birth to a film or a play that whisks you away to another world once the curtains lift, and I believe Assayas, Binoche, Moretz, and Stewart did that for me throughout most of Clouds of Sils Maria, though I still couldn’t help but take notes throughout the film.
Clouds of Sils Maria will be featured April 9-25 at the Minneapolis Saint Paul International Film Festival. You can also see it in theaters April 10.