Aging actress Maria Enders, Julia Binoche, finds out her friend and mentor, Wilhelm, has died. It was his play that started her career. At the same time, she is in the midst of a divorce and sought after to be in his play, the one that started her ascent in acting. The difference is that instead of playing the ingénue, she is the older woman, who’s driven to suicide by the younger woman that she desires. Juxtaposed Parallel to this is reality.
Her assistant, Valentine, Kristen Stewart, who she relies on, is also someone for whom there is an undercurrent of longing. Val is her constant: running lines with her, ordering food, answering texts and the phone etc. She is also her emotional sounding board, which creates a dynamic of interdependence, trust and warmth. The banter between Valentine and Maria is at times deep and at other times, witty and sardonic. Val knows pop culture, what is hot, and who is hot, while Maria is still stuck in the past, with her reviews and memories.’
Into this mix, when Maria finds out about Wilhelm’s death she goes to his villa in the Swiss Alps, and stays there with Val to rehearse lines, and find a sense of peace. She is unhappy about returning to the play, because she is no longer the young, strong woman who is the object of desire, but the older, vulnerable and thus weaker woman, who is taken in and in the end defeated.
There are a myriad of symbols within this story and representations of women, in three different time periods: Jo-Ann, Chloë Grace Mortez is the young ingénue, supplanting Maria in the role of Sigrid, Val is the middle woman, who see’s everything (the de-facto narrator of the story), and Maria, now playing Helena, is the crone, overcome by desire and her own frail innocence. Each of the women have their own foibles, yet they also have strengths, in turn, they are (each in their own way) trying to find their own path.
This brings us to the crux of the film, which is pictorially presented through the mountains. The clouds come in and form a Snake through the gorge. There are three times when this happens, once when Wilhelm’s widow points it out to Maria, secondly when Val gets lost driving, and in the end, when Val and Maria are hiking. In one depiction, the path is being clearly laid out by the older woman for Maria, in the next, it is not only indistinct, Val becomes physically sick and confused. In the last one, it foreshadows Maria gaining dependence.
These twists and turns are well done, and the lively repartee between Maria and Val really brings the scenes to life. However, after Val’s character exits Maria’s life, the story almost comes to a complete halt. Additionally, Chloë Grace Mortez’s screen time is so limited that that we barely get a chance to delve into who she is. This is the problem though. The trailer for this, misleads the viewer into thinking this is a reboot of the classic “All About Eve” in which a younger actress is trying to steal the show from an aging one.
“Clouds of Sils Maria” though is less about the motives of Jo-Ann, than it is about women finding their way through life as they age. Maria is unsure of whom she is, and the death of her mentor, as well as her divorce, unleash in her feelings of self-doubt not only about her career, but about her strength as a woman. She is unhappy with playing Helena not just because the part depicts a woman who is older, but because of what it implies about herself.
There are deep undertones throughout this movie, not only with the story, but the grandeur of the landscape as well. Is Maria like the aging hills? Or the clouds which meander throughout them, surging but with no purpose? We don’t know, and there are no simple answers.
The acting in this is good. Kristen Stewart plays off Julia Binoche’s Maria with perfect timing and grace. The real issue here is the length of the film. It is laborious. At two and four minutes, it putters at points so badly it feels like it is sucking the air out of the room.
Another problem is that because Maria and Val are reading lines to each other, there are times when it is confusing as to whether what they are saying is part of the play, or dialogue between the two of them. This slows down the pace, as the viewer must then, stop, and replay the scene in their mind for clarification so that they can then move onto the next one.
Unfortunately, the film for all its symbolism and layers of meaning is rife with clichés. Much of what happens at the end is endlessly foreshadowed in the last twenty minutes of the film. Due to this, we know what will happen and worse than that, we see it coming from scene one. It would have been better to leave the audience with more to muddle on, than a staid scene, which could have been in any other film ever made.