Movie Review: Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)
Twenty years ago, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) became an international star by playing a scheming young woman, Sigrid, who takes advantage of her older boss and lover, Helena, in Maloja Snake, a play and then film by Wilhelm Melchior.
In the first part of Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria,” Maria, accompanied by her super-competent personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart), takes the train to Zurich to accept an award for Melchior, who, they hear en route, dies at home. A heart attack. So there is sadness, mourning and regret amid public ceremonies. Maria also reverses herself and agrees to take the role of Helena in a London revival of Maloja Snake by director Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger).
In the main part of the movie, Maria and Valentine stay at Melchior’s place in Sils Maria, and rehearse and argue over Maloja Snake. Maria has trouble seeing herself as Helena, since Helena is the weak one in the play; she has trouble even liking Helena. There are echoes between the women in the play and the women rehearsing—except that Maria, the employer and artist, has power that Helena didn’t, or felt she didn’t, while Valentine struggles to get her views across. She feels her opinions are not respected. Which is why it’s Valentine who disappears on a hike in Sils Maria, echoing the disappearance of Helena in the play. We never find out what happens to either of them, although it’s assumed Helena, the older character, dies (that’s what older characters do), while Valentine simply leaves for a better opportunity (that’s what younger people do).
In the epilogue of the film, Maria is an afterthought in the run-up to the premiere in London, as the gossip machine surrounding the new Sigrid, Hollywood bad girl Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), overwhelms all.
The first part is the most interesting—it has zip and snap amid the close quarters of the train—while the second part is meditative. It’s the epilogue that’s weakest.
Mellifluous vowels vs. nasty consonants
Stewart is a revelation. The film was nominated for six Césars but won only one, for Stewart as supporting, and it’s deserved. She seems real, forthright and vulnerable. She’s subtle and sexy. It’s a role that puts memories of the nothing Bella in the trashbin.
Her character is also an idiot in the way that young people are idiots. She thinks Twitter is the real world, for example, as opposed to an aspect of what passes for the public world at the moment. It came on like that and will be replaced like that.
Much of the movie is about Maria being replaced like that. It’s coming to terms with no longer being Sigrid but Helena, with all that the name implies: classic, ancient, all mellifluous vowels versus the hard, nasty consonants of Sigrid. As Sigrid, Maria never liked Helena, nor the actress who played her, who died a year after the film was released. Old actresses don’t fade away, apparently, they just disappear. (Cf. Debra Winger, Bridget Fonda.)
Here’s the problem. The trashy tabloid world is an easy target and Assayas doesn’t even hit it right. He glances off it. Jo-Ann Ellis has starred in a recent superhero flick, which Valentine defends to Maria, but when we (they) finally see it, replete with 3-D glasses, it’s like a low-budget, 1970s version of a superhero flick, with tinfoil outfits and awful haircuts and dialogue. There’s so much to lampoon in modern movie culture, in our love of the superhero, but it helps if you’ve know what you’re lampooning. I got the feeling Assayas has seen none of it.
Plus Jo-Ann’s lover is a famous novelist? Let me quote Gore Vidal in 1992: “To speak today of a famous novelist is like speaking of a famous cabinetmaker or speedboat designer. Adjective is inappropriate to noun.”
How sweet to be a cloud
A common Assayas theme is whither culture, French or otherwise, in this Americanized and Hollywoodized world, but he’s handled it better elsewhere (“L’heure d’ete,” particularly). We were young once, and serious, and now things have gotten away from us. And look who (or what) is powerful.
But “Sils Maria” doesn’t quite click. Its use of the Maloja Snake, the cloud formation in the Alps, is both heavy-handed and slightly incomprehensible, and the film doesn’t do what it does: coalesce into a distinct form.