Review of Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria
This review is part of double feature on the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. Please check out Moira Jean Sullivan’s review of the festival.
Clouds of Sils Maria (2013). France, 124 minutes. Directed by Olivier Assayas. Starring: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz, Lars Eidinger, Johnny Flynn, Angela Winkler, and Brady Corbet.
Clouds of Sils Maria is a complex portrait of a mature woman looking back upon her career. The decisions made and the directions we chose may be difficult to understand a generation later. Olivier Assayas directed and wrote the film after three decades of working with Juliette Binoche as a way to capture what was essential in their careers. Their collaboration began with André Téchin’s Rendez-vous in competition at Cannes in 1985, starring Binoche with Assayas as co-writer.
The film is set in Sils Maria, an area in the Majola district in the Swiss Alps. Leni Riefenstahls’ mountain films that Hitler loved so much were inspired by the work of her mentor, German director Arnold Fanck, who made the Cloud Phenomena of Maloja (Germany, 1924), a clip of which is shown in the film. Sils Maria was also where Nietzsche lived during the summers from 1881 to 1883 and where he formulated the theory of the “The Eternal Return,” something symbolic for this film in revisiting a past connected with the present and future. The cinematography of the film is breathtaking with palatial pans of the Alps and the surrounding landscape.
Clouds of Sils Maria is about the famous actress Maria Ender (Juliette Binoche), who in her early 20s played the part of Sigrid in a play directed by the real-life Hamburg-born Swiss national Wilhelm Melchior, once considered for a Nobel prize in literature. Sigrid drives Helena, a woman twice her age, to suicide in a destructive love relationship. The title of Melchior’s play, The Majola Snake, sacred to the Xhosa people, is a mystical cloud in Sils Maria that under certain weather conditions drifts over the Upper and Lower Engadin Valley. Maria attends a memorial for the dead playwright in Sils Maria, where he lived with his wife Rosa, played by acclaimed New German Cinema actress Angela Winkler (Die Blechtrommel, 1978 and The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, 1975). Maria is asked by a new director, Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), to play Helena in a reworking of Melchior’s play. The controversial young actress Jo Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz) is chosen to play Sigrid, the role that originally was Maria’s.
In playing Helena, Maria has to confront her memories of playing Sigrid when she was young. Her young assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) helps her rehearse by reading Sigrid’s lines. We see little of the rehearsals Maria will later have with Jo Ann as Sigrid, which is one of the allures of this complex film. The dialogue between Helena and Sigrid is scrutinized for meaning and legitimacy by Maria. She realizes that she never bonded with the actress who played Helena as a young woman and finds her role unrealistic. In a parallel structure, the tension between Helena and Sigrid in the play comes to life as Valentine and Maria rehearse. The lesbian relationship between these two characters in the play is problematic since it is largely characterized by love addiction and self-abuse. As a heterosexual woman, Maria can’t quite articulate what is wrong with the play but the unbalanced relationship is a major concern. Helena is a destructive older lesbian, who is used by Sigrid for her contacts, and her jealousy isolates Helena from others. When Sigrid later leaves, Helena kills herself. According to Klaus, the new director of Melchior’s play, Helena consciously chooses the weapon of own self-destruction through an abusive relationship. These problematic lesbian characters evoke the relationship between the older George and younger Childie in Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George (UK 1968).
Valentine is enamored with working for the famous Maria, who in turn values her for her youthful energy. Valentine gets lost in the mountains, by car or by foot and reveals to Maria that the pressures of working for her are sometimes challenging. She takes on the problematic chore of trying to define her generation to Maria. She is a woman who likes burning through boyfriends, loves the Internet, and does not think modern blockbusters with superheroes are shallow. To Maria’s astonishment, Jo Ann, who is famous for playing such roles, is one of Valentine’s favorite actresses.
We learn of Jo Ann through Internet clips of her wild behavior, with incidents such as threatening to kill her boyfriend and shooting up a room with a gun. When asked on talk shows how these events might affect her career, she arrogantly denies any culpability. Jo Ann is tired of Hollywood trying to suck the life out of her (a parallel can be made here to Moretz’ own meteoric career rise in Hollywood films). Her acting genesis began when she saw a Hollywood film with Maria and Harrison Ford, but what most attracted her was Maria’s work in the theater and she is honored to now work with her.
In Clouds of Sils Maria, Assayas set out with Binoche to rediscover lost time, for youth comes only once. The hope is that with reflection about the past there can be a rebirth, a new beginning. When a young director later asks Maria to star in a future project, she suggests that he engage Jo Ann but he wants Maria. For him, there is no separation due to age; his characters are timeless, again evoking Nietzsche’s philosophy of the revolving wheel of life.
This is an exciting film because of the construction of a play within a play within a film. The complexity of the characters in a study of intergenerational relationships with references to the historical figures of Melchior, Franck, and Nietzsche are thought provoking in Assayas’ well-directed and scripted film. The ensemble cast of Binoche, Moretz, and Stewart is exceptional. Juliet Binoche has a challenging role in trying to make sense of the characters she played in her youth during the prime of her life. This is one of Kristen Stewart’s best roles, where she shows the broader range of her acting abilities. Chloë Grace Moretz reveals a new dimension as an actress and remarked in Cannes that working in a European art house film was inspirational for her. These three actresses have helped to create a film with multiple layers through provocative portrayals under the skilled direction of Olivier Assayas.