Clouds of Sils Maria, A Review

Surrendering to Age

Aging. For some of us, it is a gradual process of surrender. For others, it is a panic-driven free-fall into mortality.

Maria Enders (Juliet Binoche), in the latest Assayas film, “Clouds of Sils Maria,” is a middle aged actor who is thrown head-long into the realities of her age. After some grueling moments of rage in learning the lines of an aging lesbian character in a play she once starred as the older woman’s younger lover, she eventually, but reluctantly, takes the role.

She takes on the elder lesbian character only after being prodded by her assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), and more forcefully by two other characters in the movie, particularly the new director (Lars Eidinger) of the play, who replaces Maria’s long-time friend and director who dies unexpectedly.

Life Imitates Art

This play-within-a-play is a clear analogue to the relationship between Maria and her assistant, Valentine, and the actor, Jo-Ann (Clohë Grace Moretz), playing the younger lesbian in the stage drama. Assayas keeps reminding us that age travels in both directions—back to the memories of youth and forward to the present with the reality of back-burner insignificance as Maria accepts the fact that she no longer has the star power she once had.

All the props and scenes are there to accentuate the Maginot-line of age and sensibility differences between Maria and the other two women:

  • Maria’s assistant, Valentine, is constantly taking and receiving text-messages on her iPhone while Maria has an out-of-date flip phone. Valentine consistently identifies with the younger actor, Jo-Ann, in her youth-oriented, dumbed-down roles in science fiction thrillers.
  • Jo-Ann is on a paparazzi, roller-coaster ride of public drunken/drug outbursts, typical of her age as a modern, tabloid-driven actor. Maria, on the other hand, is at the more moderate stage of property rights in a recent divorce (nothing flashy)
  • One scene is particularly eye-opening when Maria, Jo-Ann and her boyfriend, and the new director try to escape from the paparazzi who are following Jo-Ann and her new beau, a popular fiction writer. Maria is left standing outside the restaurant while the paparazzi on motorcycles pursue the young couple.
  • On her way to a private party, Valentine encounters heavy fog on the winding roads of the Alps. She gets out of her car and vomits. In the next scene, Maria sees her sprawled out on her bed. I can only assume that Valentine returns home to the private villa having had a traumatic moment of awareness that she is going to leave Maria—the conflict between her own youth and the Maria’s aging sensibilities is just too much for her to bear. She eventually abandons Maria in the mountains (mirroring the same abandonment of Helena and her younger lesbian lover in the play Maria is practicing the lines for).
  • In the final scene, Maria suggests to Jo-Ann that she turn in a final gesture of acknowledgment to the aging lesbian character. Jo-Ann takes complete control of the scene by telling her that the relationship between her character and the older lesbian is over and needs no final recognition

A Brief Plot Overview

When the film opens, Maria and her assistant are on their way to a Swiss villa to connect with an over-the-hill writer/director of a new production of the play in which Maria starred as a young, manipulative lesbian who drives an older woman  to suicide.

Maria has her sights on the young character she once played.

The train trip is interrupted by a phone call that the director has died (we find out later in the film that he arranged his own death, another call-and-response age narrative in the film). Maria is left to deal with her own grief on two levels—her memories of her own youth with the director in his prime and the oncoming conflict with the new director who moves her into the new production of the play as the older lesbian.

She is later conflicted with another level of that reality when she is forced to connect with an actor who took advantage of her in her youth (there is a moment in the movie when she puts his phone number in her purse, suggesting that she’s not yet willing to give up her sexuality in spite of his predatory behavior with her as a new and up-coming starlet).

Assayas spends a lot of time inside the narrative of Maria and Valentine’s platonic relationship and eventual breakup. As they go through the play with Valentine reciting the lines of the younger lesbian and Maria acting out the new role of the older lesbian, it is clear that Valentine is siding, not only with her character but with the new actor, Jo-Ann, who will eventually take that role. Maria has constant outbursts of rage over having to play the older woman, camouflaging that rage by constantly criticizing the script writing.

The tension between Maria and Valentine starts at a simmer as they hike through the Alps reciting lines, relaxing, swimming, having lunch. It eventually reaches a haunting climax when Valentine abandons Maria on one of their hiking trips.

The rest of the film’s narrative revolves around Maria’s new life as an aging star with a new assistant, a brief re-enactment in her role as the aging lesbian character, and, finally, an encounter with another director who wants to hire her.

Surrender and Acceptance

I think it would be safe to say that Maria gradually accepts her age. It seems unambiguously clear to me that in the role of the older lesbian, her final facial expression is one of gentle, wisdom-of-the-ages surrender.

She is jump-started into that acceptance when a young director convinces her to star in a youth-culture, sci-fi film. He openly admits that he doesn’t fit into that culture in spite of his deference to the teen-age film genre (It is one of the more poignant scenes in the film for me because I have met many bright young thinkers and rebels who just don’t fit into the American-Idol world of adolescent heart throbs).

I might add, by the way, that this is not a movie for the faint of heart. You have to be prepared for some Jamesian moments of extended conversations and images. Especially the haunting visual re-enactments of the snake-like cloud formations in the Alps that, if anything, are used by Assayas to suggest the menacing enigmas of human relationships and age that can come and go without warning.

But if you like nuance and are willing to surrender to Assayas’s love of plot mirrors and analogues, it’s really worth it. Hang in there.

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