Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)

Directed by Olivier Assayas

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In Clouds of Sils Maria, an actress holds on dearly to the past while considering taking a role in a remake of the film which first made her a star.  With shades of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), Maria (Juliette Binoche) spends most of her time with personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), who pushes Maria to embrace the present and the future rather than to cling to the past.

Valentine encourages her to take on the role of Helena in a staged play called Maloja Snake.  This is the same play in which Maria starred as a younger character, Sigrid, and then reprised the role in a film adaptation, making her an international star.

In the play, the younger Sigrid seduces her boss, Helena, and uses Helena’s affections for her to manipulate and torment the older figure.  Maria’s and Valentine’s relationship has more than a few similarities to the literary one, and soon the relationship influences how we see Maria interact with Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz), the young actress cast in the role she once inhabited.

The symbolism may be a little on the nose, but the point is certainly, effectively made.  We are so immersed in Maria’s world, seeing every relationship, every incident as something threatening.  We feel her slight paranoia and constant anxiety from which her only relief is drinking and mocking new people and ideas.

This might seem like a story about young and old, but that dichotomy is never really present here beyond the surface.  Valentine and Jo-Ann aren’t here to scratch and claw with Maria in some kind of inter-generational battle.  Instead they might as well be her at that age, and Maria’s conversations with the two characters is as delicate as you might imagine your own might be were you to encounter yourself at another age.

Maria handles Valentine with a combination of tough love and care.  Similarly she approaches Jo-Ann with empathy once she first meets her.  This first encounter helps paint a picture of the person behind the celebrity image, and if she can be so surprised by the gap between celebrity and the human underneath, then maybe it stands to reason that there would be similar distance between herself and her glum notions of her own celebrity image.

Not a whole lot happens in Clouds of Sils Maria, not just plotwise but within the character as well.  We watch Maria undertake an arc that we anticipate will lead to demonstrable change, but the film is open-ended and refuses easy analysis.  I’m sure the clues are there, but this isn’t a neat and tidy presentation of some relatable human emotion.  Instead the depiction of that emotion is as messy as the emotion itself.

Maria is like the characters in Lost in Translation or Her, and in some ways like the characters in Sideways, Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, Gus Van Sant’s Last Days and you can see her becoming the grandpa character in Little Miss Sunshine.  She is at a crossroads, young enough to know she has much of her life still ahead of her but old enough to not know what to do with it when the journey ahead seems so much different than the path that got her there.

She’s jaded and selfish in the ways you expect someone with this much fame to become.  Everything she does in the film has to do with her career, and rarely do we see underneath that.  She’s headed to Zurich to honor Wilhelm Melchior, the director who kickstarted her career.  While traveling, she gets word that Wilhelm has died, and later we learn it was a suicide.

Maria doesn’t respond with sadness as much as concern for how best to move forward.  She is more worried with the possibility of running into an old co-star as well as fending off movie offers that she has no interest in.  At the same time she is going through a divorce, but we never get a strong sense of whether this takes any additional toll on her or if it’s just another chore to cross off.

Valentine insulates Maria from the world.  She takes her calls, conducts many of her meetings and begins to offer more youthful wisdom, as if explaining to Maria the new world like a mother to a child.  When Valentine disappears from the story in a slightly surreal manner, there is no resolution offered to her departure.  All that matters is that she was gone.

Were this to be a more cheesy movie, we might assume that Valentine was only ever a figment of her imagination, her Tyler Durden, if you will.  But that feels much too cheap, and I think the only significance to her departure is the emotion of it being so sudden.  This might just be a strong example of what it feels like when someone to whom you attach yourself (for better or worse) leaves your storyline.

Were Valentine to explain herself and hop on a plane back to America, we might not feel the impact of her departure as much as we do now.  The importance is that Maria must navigate the world on her own and use Valentine’s Yoda-like advice to help her.

The rest of the story, the epilogue, jumps forward a few weeks into the future, and in it Valentine takes a back seat.  Jo-Ann becomes the focus of the story, not just by their shared director for the upcoming play but by the movie as well.  In this section, the story is driven by a relationship Jo-Ann has with a married author.  When the author’s wife uncovers the affair, she attempts suicide.  Their director frets about the unwanted paparazzi, and little concern is offered to the woman fighting for her life.

There are no real shocking developments in this story despite a suicide and a near suicide.  Those characters are only ever referred to and are never seen.  The reactions to their incidents is given little weight, and the importance of their actions is to underscore how selfishly (I think) the main characters react to them.

It’s not that Maria or Jo-Ann reacts with any negative emotion, just that there is a severe distance between them and what we might see as an ordinary response to such a thing.  Or maybe I’m missing the point.  This film is hard to pin down.

It’s a story about getting older and the feeling that time is passing you by.  All that really happens, in Maria’s case, is that she starts to feel less important, and I suppose that’s the point.  We grow less significant in the broader world as we age, but so too do we value less the things that make people famous.  Fame itself might just be a sign of youth.  As Valentine tells Maria, Jo-Ann is extremely famous because of the teenagers who watch her movies and devour every article written about her.  The people who make Maria famous are the ones who have just not yet undertaken the journey Maria is on.

Or something.  Fame is youth, and obscurity is old age?  Is that it?  It’s not that Maria’s journey is cathartic in any way, but neither is Jo-Ann’s.  Clouds of Sils Maria depicts Maria’s slow walk out of the spotlight as another enters, and at the same time it manages to show just how much of a chore being famous can be.

Up Next: Code Unknown (2000), The Changeling (1980), Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

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