Clouds of Sils Maria

May 15, 2015
Juliette Binoche in 'Clouds of Sils Maria' (2014)
Juliette Binoche in 'Clouds of Sils Maria' (2014)

Clouds of Sils Maria is not a title to attract teenage thrill-seekers on a Friday night. Those with a philosophical bent may know this was the town in the Swiss Alps where Friedrich Nietzsche went to breathe the mountain air and wrestle with his concept of the Eternal Return. Since the days of Aristophanes philosophers have been satirised for having their heads in the clouds, and enigmatic French director, Olivier Assayas, is willing to risk those same charges.

The Eternal Return asks us to imagine that every moment of our earthly lives will be repeated, over and over, until the end of time. Should we weep and despair at this thought? No, says Nietzsche, we should rejoice at the opportunity to step out of time and live in such a way that it would be sheer pleasure to do it all again.

Time is the enemy for Maria Enders (Juliet Binoche), a renowned 40-something actress who is beginning to think twice about the roles she should be playing. The film opens with Maria and her 20-something assistant, Val (Kristen Stewart), on a train bound for Zurich. The actress has agreed to accept an award on behalf of Wilhelm Melchior, a distinguished playwright who gave her the first big break of her career.

Before reaching their destination they learn that Melchior has died, and the celebration transformed into a wake. Maria must steel herself to don the Chanel frock and appear on stage alongside Henry Wald (Hans Zischler), a famous actor with whom she has an unhappy history.

On the same evening she is approached by Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), an acclaimed theatre director, and asked to appear in a new production of Maloja Snake, the Melchior play that made her a star. The play concerns a lesbian relationship between a 40-year-old boss and her ambitious 20-year-old assistant and seductress.

In the first production Maria played the younger woman, now Klaus would like her to play the elder. It fits in with his theory that these characters are two sides of the same person. For the role of the assistant he has signed Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), the Hollywood brat of the moment, known for her drug busts and tempestuous love affairs.

The scene is set for an All About Eve-style conflict between grand dame and young pretender, but Assayas confounds our expectations. In the second chapter, (yes, “chapter”) Maria and Val retire to Melchior’s house in Sils Maria, where they are left alone by the playwright’s widow, Rosa (Angela Winkler), who wants to escape memories of her husband’s death.

The two women read through the play while wandering on the slopes, awaiting the appearance of the real Maloja Snake, a unique natural phenomenon which sees clouds funnelled through a gap in the mountains like a massive serpent. Eventually Jo-Ann appears at the local hotel, and seems utterly unlike the hell raiser who screams and swears her way through the YouTube videos.

Yet girl-child Jo-Ann is peripheral to the central relationship in this story – between Maria and Val, who have drawn so close they are like mother and daughter, or perhaps undeclared lovers. As they read out the lines of Melchior’s play about an intense, manipulative affair the boundaries between reality and fiction are blurred. Maria has become dismissive of the play, while Val grows frustrated as she tries to put forward a personal interpretation.

It feels as if we are watching Bergman’s Persona (1966), with reference to Fassbinder’s lesbian drama, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972). None of this is coincidental. Assayas, who never seems to make the same movie twice, is a former film critic who wrote a book on Bergman. The self-conciousness of the script is redeemed by the strength of the performances and the director’s masterful touch with cuts and fades.

The beginning of the film feels like the middle, as we enter upon a scene in which Val juggles phone calls on two mobiles. Almost every set piece seems to end a few seconds before it is completely played out. It gives the story an edginess that makes one more forgiving of Assayas unashamedly ‘literary’ dialogue.

Even this has its pleasures. When Maria and Val go to the cinema in St. Moritz to see Jo-Ann in a Hollywood superhero flick, their views are framed along generational lines. Val feels that Jo-Ann has bought an unusual emotional depth to the character. “Despite her super powers,” she says, stony-faced, “she’s defenceless.”

Maria’s response is to spit the top off her beer with laughter. It’s the same debate that goes on everywhere nowadays between those who believe that characters in coloured leotards can have a tortuous inner life, and those – like me – who refuse to view a caped crusader in Chekhovian terms.

Maria wants to secure Val’s admiration, being jealous of the way she sings Jo-Ann’s praises, but their conversations grow increasingly fractious. Maria can’t see the (generation) gap that is opening up between them, and Val can’t convey the pain and anger she feels. These lengthy conversations, in which the unsaid is no less important then words themselves, are at the heart of this film. Binoche and Stewart demonstrate a brilliant rapport, heightened by our recognition that they are speaking from personal experience when they debate the meaning of fame and the role of the actor.

On one level, Clouds of Sils Maria is a film about the chasm that opens up between our middle-aged selves and the people we were in our twenties – and for a famous actor, whose every move is lived in the glare of publicity, this disjunction takes on an even greater drama. There is only one solution, and that takes us back to the realm of philosophy, back to the clouds.

Clouds of Sils Maria
Written and directed by Olivier Assayas
Starring Juliet Binoche, Kirsten Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz, Lars Eidinger, Johnny Flynn, Angela Winkler, Hans Zischler
France/Switzerland/Germany/USA/Belgium, rated MA 15+, 123 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 9th May, 2015.