Film Review: CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA
The director, Olivier Assayas, has said that he conceived this film is his vehicle for Juliet Binoche, his favorite actress and his muse. It is not exactly a Valentine. She has to work for it and she proves she is up to the task. You could say that this is a case of life imitating art. Binoche plays Maria Enders, a fifty-ish actress who has had a highly successful international career. When the film opens she is on a train to Zurich, Switzerland to accept an award for the reclusive playwright/director, Wilhelm Melchior, who gave her her first break at the age of eighteen and went on to mentor her to stardom. Travelling with her factotum, Val (Kristen Stewart), who is adroitly fielding calls for Maria - from Maria’s lawyers regarding her divorce and various details of the tribute as well as helping her write her speech - the call comes in informing her that Wilhelm has died. This has the effect of turning everything upside-down for Maria, who is now filled with mixed emotions about how or if to go forward. The tribute will now be a memorial. She is blind-sided by the news. Once she arrives there are so many people from her past that all have their own versions of their relationships with Wilhelm and represent different proprietary agendas. Among them is a young upcoming director who boldly approaches Maria to perform his version of the Wilhelm Melchior play that launched her career - Maloja Snake.
In that production, she played Sigrid, a young manipulative woman who so intrigued her older female employer, Helena, that she became completely obsessed and ultimately destroyed herself. This was a breakout performance for which Maria is still remembered. Only this time, Maria is expected to play Helena which is a tough call and one that she is more than a little reluctant to embrace. To surrender the role of the controlling object of desire and get into the skin of the vulnerable, out-of-control older woman and find something with which she can identify which is not totally humiliating is quite a stretch.
This is where it gets into the parallel reality - as Val is asked to run lines with Maria. Val, who is twenty years younger than her employer is trying to help Maria understand her new character vis a vis her previous character, who will be played by a sort of Lindsey Lohan-esque actor of some notoriety, and who Val thinks is great. Maria has never heard of her and finds her previous work beneath contempt (super-heroines, etc). Maria and Val have moved into the isolated house of the deceased Wilhelm in the Swiss mountains so that Maria can prepare herself for the play. They become more dependent on each other and their roles begin to shift and resemble the respective characters which they are rehearsing. There is a lot of pushing and pulling of egos and one-upmanship.
As the lines blur between the actual characters and the ones they are each inhabiting, things get stranger and stranger and very Assayas-esque. The fact of the location high in the mountains and the name of the play which refers to an unusual phenomenon particular to this location (Sils Maria) where the clouds come down and settle over the river like mist and take a snake-like form as it travels along the valley is one of the ways Assayas integrates unrelated elements to create an enigmatic atmosphere which adds to the mystery and the fact that nothing is as it seems. Secrets will be revealed but we will never be certain that we have a grasp on what is reality and what is not. There will be much to discuss after leaving the film.
Review by Belle McIntyre