The original title of this movie was probably Maloja Snake, after the clouds of Sils Maria that come whirling into the valley in a most reptilian fashion under certain weather conditions. (This is a real phenomenon with disappointingly few videos available online about it, though an old documentary about them in black-and-white that’s featured in this movie is available.)
The Clouds of Sils Maria probably has the most beautiful movie shots of Switzerland since Force Majeure. Which would be the last movie we saw that took place in Switzerland, come to think of it.
Anyway, this is a movie whose trailer is an utter lie; a movie that I loved; and a movie that I would only recommend to a few people.
First of all, the trailer makes it seem like a psychodrama. In fact, The Boy actually said “I’m in the mood for a psychodrama.” And I said, “Really?” because psychodramas are usually the ickiest sorts of films. And he said, “Yeah,” and looked at me like I was his crazy old father.
But the movie isn’t a psychodrama at all: Every “high drama” line from the trailer is actually not dialogue but lines from a play (“Maloja Snake”) that our main character, Maria (Juliette Binoche), is rehearsing. She’s doing the lines with her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) who, not being an actress, tends to deliver them in a rather banal way, which is why Binoche seems so unhinged in the trailer relative to Stewart.
And while I’ve done my share of Stewart bashing, this makes two movies in a row where she’s actually acted, and she does a terrific job here with a much harder role, basically carrying the film along with Binoche.
But the trailer makes it seem like Valentine is the manipulative character being described, which she is not. Valentine is actually the voice of reason. She’s a bridge between the brittle, high-strung world of the actress who, while skilled, also traded heavily on her sexuality—and the girl who’s poised to be her replacement, Jo-Ann (played with convincing cruelty by Chloe Grace Moretz).
The premise is that Maria’s first role was as this vicious sociopath, Sigrid, who manipulates an older woman, Helena, grows tired of her and abandons her (to suicide, apparently, though this becomes a bone of contention later on). Now, it’s 20-25 years later—and the movie is ambiguous here because Binoche is comfortably over 30 years past the 18-year-old she was supposed to have been—and a new director wants to take the play on and have Maria play the Helena.
Because, as he says, Sigrid and Helena are the same woman. Well, Maria completely rejects this. And the ensuing struggle is why I love this film.
But, it is about actors, and process, and art, and I know how some of y’all feel about that.
Basically, Maria identifies with the horrible, horrible Sigrid. She identifies so strongly with her, she can’t identify with Helena, her victim. At the same time, Helena is at heart just an older version of Sigrid.
I can’t emphasize enough how awful a play this would be to actually watch. But as a metaphor for an actress trying to come to grips with her self-identity? It works well.
Stewart and Binoche have a compelling chemistry, and it’s hard not to sympathize with the level-headed Valentine as she tries to help Maria navigate the new world of Internet fame, to understand that, yes, even Big Budget Superhero/Sci-Fi flicks can have emotional depth, and to possibly look beyond the understanding of “Maloja Snake” Maria seems to have evolved at the age of 18 and never advanced beyond.
The climax of the film is one of the more unusual ones I’ve seen. It’s essentially a negative event, which I shan’t describe because it would be a serious spoiler. But it’s aesthetically quite pleasing. The movie practically could’ve ended there, but we need to see what happens to Maria, and that is very subject to interpretation.
Writer/director Olivier Assayes has created a beautiful and fascinating film that plays at a very high aesthetic level.
And, once again: Kristen Stewart plays the level-headed, grounded, rooted-in-modern-culture-but-not-lost-in-it girl who both loves Jo-Ann as an actress and has a certain disgust for her antics which are remarkably similar to Stewart’s real-life antics. Just as the whole movie is an examination of the actress’s meta-role, the movie itself acts as a sort of meta-commentary on the actual people playing the actresses.
Ow, I think I hurt myself with that one. But you get the idea. Obviously not for everyone but we found it compelling.