Life imitates art in Clouds of Sils Maria

By Catherine Hoffman
New Times Editor and Communications Officer

Posted in Culture


The last several years have seen an influx of films about the intricacies of show business. Clouds of Sils Maria, directed by Olivier Assayas, is a recent addition to this genre and reviewers have been quick to pick up similarities between it and last year’s Oscar winner Birdman. However, while Clouds may not have the impact or wide audience that its thematic predecessor did, this quieter film allows for a more intimate study of character and relationship.

Clouds opens on a train taking ageing actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) and her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) to Zurich where Maria is to accept an award of the behalf of Wilhelm Melchior.

Wilhelm is the playwright who launched Maria to fame when she was cast as one of the leads in his play Maloja Snake, which was then turned into a film. In Maloja Snake, Maria played the role of Sigrid, a compelling young woman who seduces and manipulates Helena, her middle-aged employer. It’s the starring turn that launched Maria to fame, and in this opening scene she struggles with what to say about the man who gave her this first opportunity.

The plot is driven by Maria’s reluctant decision to appear in a revival of Maloja Snake – this time in the role of Helena. The role of Sigrid will be played by a seemingly troubled up-and-coming star, Jo-Ann Ellis (a well-cast Chloë Grace Moretz). Maria and Valentine temporarily take up residence in Sils Maria, a beautiful area in the Swiss mountains, while Maria learns Helena’s lines. The decision to play the character of Helena is one that makes Maria feel powerless as she still aligns her own personality with Sigrid’s and struggling to come to terms with her age.

It is obvious that Assayas wants the audience to draw comparisons between the characters of Helena and Sigrid, Valentine and Maria. Sometimes this kind of leading from a director can feel forced, but by slowly revealing different aspects of Valentine and Maria’s personalities, Assayas manages to make the comparisons feel intriguing rather than ham-fisted. He is assisted in this by the strong performances of the two lead actresses.

Juliette Binoche plays Maria as a woman who is constantly projecting a character, who often seems self-obsessed and yet has very little self-awareness. Although some of the lines delivered by Binoche feel unnatural and scripted, this only serves to emphasise how blurred the line between reality and stage is for Maria.

Despite Binoche’s accomplished performance, it is Kristen Stewart who really shines. Valentine is one of the few characters who does not seem to be trying to project or perform herself in a certain way, and this is largely due to Stewart’s skilful embodiment of the character. Between Stewart and Binoche there is an intense chemistry and sense of intimacy, which propels the film to its ambiguous conclusion.

Clouds of Sils Maria is not for everybody. Profanity, nudity and sexual references may cause some viewers to feel uncomfortable, while others may be dissatisfied with the lack of action in the film. For other filmgoers, Clouds provides a captivating look at how people perform and perceive themselves, in real life and on stage.

Clouds of Sils Maria (MA15+) is now showing in limited release across Australia, and is screening at Palace Nova Eastend Cinemas in Adelaide. For more details on session times and days please click here.

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