CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA
May 29, 2015 § Leave a comment
Towards the end of Olivier Assayas’ new film, the actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) and her young PA, Val (Kristen Stewart of Twilight fame) are arguing over how to read the map that will guide them to the perfect spot for the dawn appearance of the clouds that enter the Maloja pass and wind, snake-like, through the Engadin valley. ‘It’s an object,’ says the exasperated Val, ‘It changes depending on where you’re standing’.
This relativity of perspective applies to much of what we see in Clouds of Sils Maria. Between these two women there’s a generational mismatch of views: on styles of acting, on how you judge the value of a play or film, on the seriousness or trashiness of genres, on trends and celebrities, on experience and youth. Maria, like Binoche (for whom the part was written specifically, by her old friend, Assayas) is at the peak of her career, renowned in cinema and theatre, on both sides of the Channel and Atlantic. We first see her on a train, while the efficient multi-tasking Val fields calls and messages on the smart phones in her hands. They’re on their way to the Swiss Alps, where Maria will receive an award on behalf of her old friend and mentor, the playwright/director Wilhelm Melchior, too frail or reluctant to be present himself. In the car heading for St Moritz they learn of his death.
Maria’s already in the middle of a divorce, her own phone occupied with lawyers’ updates on property splits. The shock of the news robs her of a poise we watch her tremulously regain in her public persona as glamorous star (the first of several, sometimes surprising, transformations), and the play of private and public, acting and living continues throughout the film. Things move fast, from train to car, to the melee of the public event, from Zürich to St Moritz, and higher. And until Sils Maria, things are constantly relayed through the technology of the speedy screen-locked life that doesn’t really give lived life its due.
It’s hard to hold on to everything we see or hear in this film of parallelisms and doublings, fleeting images and fractured, messy conversations. A film of increasingly layered complexity, with more than one film within the film we are watching, and a play within the play at the heart of Maria’s crisis. Wilhelm had launched her career in The Maloja Snake, as the 18-year-old Sigrid, who drives her 40-year-old employer Helena to suicide by rejecting her love. Now, an ambitious young Austrian director woos her to take on the role of Helena in a ‘modern’ London staging of the play. Sigrid’s role falls to celebrity brat Jo-Ann Ellis, starlet of Hollywood schlock– played by teenager Chloe Grace Moretz (child star of Kick-Ass).
Flattery inclines Maria to acceptance. There’s an inevitability to her mounting sense of being sidelined and eventually displaced. Bergman’s Persona might suggest a template for Val and Maria’s intense Alpine confrontations, and Mankiewicz’s All about Eve comes immediately to mind, but where the latter is cynical Sils Maria is melancholy. Which doesn’t stop it from being playful and witty. It’s about actors and living with fame, its phoniness and ephemerality, about the actor inhabiting the character who is herself, and the resulting blurring of the two, which makes all the more poignant the shifting balance of the relationship between Maria and Val as they rehearse the text of The Maloja Snake in the solitude of the mountains. Wilhelm’s house is their stage, inside and out, generously lent by his widow, a small part, but she’s allowed a secret gesture that sends out ripples of mystery. The actress is Angela Winkler, one of the stars of the New German Cinema in the 1970s, with her own significant history beyond this frame. She stands for the oldest generation in a film of four women, with all four actresses each from a different axis of cinema.
There are allusions to the acting world’s hostile symbiosis with the press. Paparazzi and tabloids are referred to as ‘the cockroaches’, but they later prove their usefulness. The theatre is no purer than the cinema in this respect. From the start, Jo-Ann’s notorious bad behaviour makes her a promising headline magnet.
I’ve only once seen Binoche on stage: in Pirandello’s Naked at the Almeida in 1998. Remembering this, I realised how much Sils Maria was Pirandellian territory. But the major literary reference is Nietzsche, mentioned by Assayas in a recent Radio 4 interview. Nietzsche spent several summers at Sils Maria, a place much frequented by writers then, and since, and shots of his handsome white house (now a museum) appear in the film as Wilhelm’s. It was here that he developed the idea of Eternal Recurrence. Although a contested figure, he has been a source for many thinkers on the left, most notably in France, and certainly a fruitful one for Assayas, who seems to have his ‘eternal hourglass of existence’ very much in mind. When he has one of Maria’s interlocutors recall her words in a past interview, it has to be Nietzsche he is thinking of: ‘If we are sincere, we are the sum total of our experiences without exception’. She herself has no memory of the words: ‘Did I really say that?’ How easily the passage of time makes us forget ourselves.
Sils Maria is not a film you enter into; it continually destabilises the audience’s viewpoint (you keep having to stand back and rethink), which is a good way of asking questions, and these are honest ones, not just about actors and directors, or their duplicities and self-delusions. The script is so intellectually agile, the visual conjunctions so tantalising, the Alpine setting so beautiful – and yet we almost forget about it, just as Maria and Val do on their argumentative walks – that the film can’t be judged on a single viewing. I look forward to seeing it again.