' Cinema Romantico: Clouds of Sils Maria

Monday, May 18, 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria

The first shot of “Clouds of Sils Maria” finds Val, short for Valentine (Kristen Stewart), aboard a Eurorail, the camera shaking. Well, actually the camera is still; the train is causing the camera to shake. And this shaking ominously suggests a forthcoming shake-up in whatever movie world this is we are about to enter. Indeed, Val is the personal assistant of Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), a famed actress on her way to a celebration honoring the writer, William Melchior, who helped trigger her upward professional trajectory. Alas, they learn Melchior has died, and he would probably be gleeful to learn his own death functions in the context of “Clouds of Sils Maria” as mere symbolism, the portent of our leading lady’s doom. A celebration becomes a memorial.


That memorial takes fairly overt form in a revival of the play that twenty-some years ago put Maria a on the map wherein she rivetingly played the part of a youthful ingénue in a complicated starry-eyed relationship with an older actress. Now, of course, the director wants Maria to reverse roles. Her former part will be played by JoAnn, a rising American star prone to fits of volatile public hysteria, played exquisitely by Chloe Grace Moretz with a kind of European art house spin on the Miley Cyrus phenomenon. She is fresh off some ginormous if vapid sci-fi flick and now embroiled in scandal as the other woman in an affair with an English writer who, frankly, doesn’t seem like he can keep up with her. Come to think of it, JoAnn more than a little resembles the off screen travails, fair or not (not), of one Kristen Stewart. You half expect that she will encounter the Kristen Stewart of “Twilight” in some sort of perverted cinematic séance.

It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely when reality, the old curmudgeonly term of the movie reviewing lexicon, departs “Clouds of Sils Marias.” When Val runs lines with Maria, director Olivier Assayas often enters the moment mid-rehearsal, with scripts tucked out of sight, a disorienting effect that means we can’t be certain if they are merely reciting dialogue or legitimately having a row, and therefore effectively eliciting a sensation of being both. Veracity blends with fiction, which is the eerie, wonderful plain on which this whole dreamy movie rests. After all, art, as Val lectures her employer, is an “interpretation of life that can be truer than life itself”, a line worthy of eye-rolls until you hear the way Ms. Stewart says it, with so much earnestness that it counteracts the naivety. “Clouds of Sils Maria” may be sentient but it never devolves into self-impressed self-awareness.

As with any film concerning the acting industry, “Clouds of Sils Marias” invites comparisons to the grand dame of showbiz satires “All About Eve”, even if they are far from the same film. That was a backstage drama dipped in battery acid, a schemer conniving to crush a starlet, the perpetual cycle of the performer. The fall from grace here, however, is inevitable rather than accelerated, a piercing and gloriously puzzling portrait of an actress’s careers suddenly becoming enveloped in the fog of age, emblemized quite insistently, but no less breathlessly, by the clouds of the title, the so-called Majola Snake, a kind of smoke ring that pours through the canyons of the Swiss Alps where they are hiding out.


Considering that Maria has re-ascended the stage in the wake of dressing up for a superhero movie, her character bears hallmarks of Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thompson, the focal point of last year’s Academy Award winning “Birdman.” Yet that was a film heightened to the point of grandiosity. Riggan’s daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), called him on the carpet, yes, to try provide counterweight to the opening shot of his levitation and all that sleight-of-hand (or not) entailed. Yet the film’s final shot seemed to suggest she believed he could fly, giving over to the illusion of the movie star, a deliberate sacrificing of the film’s final thread of tangibility. Val, however, is and remains the emotional and professional ballast of Maria, counseling and coddling her employer to remain in the play when she wants out. Val sees value in attacking the same work from a different vantage point, to opening one’s self up to another reading, to using art as a kind of working through, and when something happens to Val toward the second act's end, it intentionally feels as if that working-through has become unmoored.

The push & pull between these two women winds up as the film’s prominent feature, the question of who’s wisest being blurred. When Val proclaims that a performance in a dunderheaded Hollywood blockbuster can carry just as much spiritual weight as a hoity-toity art film, it’s incredible to witness not only for the way in which this hoity-toity art film is going to bat for dunderheaded Hollywood blockbusters, but for the zealous optimism with which Val professes it. In the end, it’s not simply the years that have been automatically stripped from Maria, it’s the ideals, and the idea that we accumulate wisdom with age disappears like the landscape to the Majola Snake.

1 comment:

Derek Armstrong said...

Well, this piece of writing is clearly the best thing about this movie. You've almost convinced me this movie knows what it's doing. Instead, I am left remembering all the scenes that don't mean anything (Val's ill-fated trip to meet that guy? A pointless scene drinking in a casino bar?) and how flat the narrative progression of this movie is. Don't throw anything at me - I know I am in the minority.