Can a film be both fascinating AND dull? In The Clouds of Sils Maria Juliette Binoche is Maria Enders, a celebrated actress and star, who first became famous in Maloja Snake a work about an older woman, Helena, who falls in love with a much younger girl, Sigrid, and is driven to suicide. Then, she played Sigrid; now she is asked to play Helena. Kristen Stewart is Valentine, Maria’s super-efficient, smart and cool assistant. The relationship between Maria and Valentine is the opposite side of the coin of that of Helena and Sigrid but as Valentine is helping Maria with her lines, one often can’t tell where the boundary lies between the real and fictional relationship between them; and the film creates an interesting tension between the layers of fictional worlds in which this tension gets played out and in doing so complexly dramatizes questions on the nature of acting and being.
The interplay between Stewart and Binoche, and the differing styles in which the act it out, also adds an interesting twist on this. Everything people claim for Streep, I feel for Binoche. I simply think there’s no one of her generation better, and layers of conflicting emotion are conveyed absolutely transparently. In this film she’s beautiful and plain, feminine and masculine, flirtatious and castrating; she runs through the gamut and it’s all clearly understandable as coming from one character. Plus, she is also a star and one can’t take one’s eyes of her, at least until Kristen Stewart comes in to split our gaze. She’s not transparent at all but she is mesmeric. You don’t know what she’s thinking really but one keeps on looking intently in the hope of finding out. They’re great together. From their interplay, interesting ideas about the connection between age, desire, and vulnerability are played out, with Stewart forcefully making a claim for the desirability of Maria/Helena and the desire and vulnerability of the much younger Sigrid.
The film is fascinating on acting, performance, performing, stardom, aging, celebrity culture and on debates on the nature of cinema and cinematic art in our time. It gets even livelier when Chloë Grace Moretz, playing Jo-Anne Ellis, a star of X-Men type sci-fi action films and active participant in paparazzi-infused internet celebrity culture, gets cast opposite Maria in the role of Sigrid. Jo-Anne will contradict all of Valentine’s interpretations, whilst Maria, who has learned form Valentine in the process, will start to think about ways of asserting them. This is a fascinating film on the nature of acting, its relation to being, the thin line between them, and how that thin line is made even thinner when the unreality of celebrity culture is thrown in the mix.
The Maloja Snake, a cloud bank that winds its way through the alpine pass like a river or a snake by a twist of nature, thus providing the illusion of winding and forward movement whilst observing it from the top of the mountains but obscuring that which is below, is used as a metaphor for the film. Excerpts from Arnold Fanck’s 1924 film, Cloud Phenomena of Maloja, are used in the film.
The Clouds of Sils Maria is a much more fascinating film to think about then to watch. But one has to undergo the latter in order to engage with the former.