“Clouds of Sils Maria” Presents a Strong, Female-Driven Story
Issue   |   Tue, 05/05/2015 - 22:40
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Binoche and Stewart (above) convey a deep, nuanced onscreen relationship.

Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart and Chloe Moretz make a powerful, understated trio in “Clouds of Sils Maria,” directed by Olivier Assayas. Binoche plays Maria Enders, an internationally renowned actress who gained fame playing the role of the Sigrid, a young personal assistant in the play “Maloja Snake,” 20 years prior. Now, she is asked to step into the role of Helena, Sigrid’s boss and lover, whose obsession with Sigrid eventually drives her to suicide. Playing opposite Maria as Sigrid is Jo-Ann Ellis (Moretz), a talented young actress and A-list partier. But Maria’s true “opposite” is Kristen Stewart’s Valentine, her real-life personal assistant. The mirrored set-up of the actress-personal assistant relationship both in the play-within-a-movie and within the movie itself is purposeful — perhaps too obviously so — and throughout the course of Maria’s rehearsals with Valentine, the audience questions more and more the true nature of their relationship.

“It’s the attraction of two women with the same wound,” says Valentine about “Maloja Snake.”

She could be talking about Helena and Sigrid, or about Jo-Ann and Maria, but really she is speaking about herself and Maria. The two rehearse the play in Sils Maria, and Assayas often begins many scenes mid-rehearsal, causing us to wonder if the two are speaking as Maria and Valentine or Helena and Sigrid. Whether this distinction matters is viewers’ question to answer by the end. We only can catch glimpses of the pair’s flirtation in subtle moments: a caress of the cheek, a drunken smile, an afternoon spent swimming wherein their ecstatic shrieks could really go both ways. Valentine cares for Maria and possibly even loves her. Maria, just like Helena with Sigrid, relies heavily on Valentine. She questions Valentine about her love life, in a rather motherly, platonic fashion, but Valentine’s flirty retort (“Are you jealous?”) implies that Maria’s question has a different motive.

The emotions of these three women are nuanced and deeply layered. Maria is an extremely famous celebrity who knows no one and does not understand modern Hollywood. She struggles with the passage of time and with her growing insignificance in the face of tabloid scandals, Internet culture and superhero movies. She stubbornly refuses to recognize any parallels between her life and Helena’s until the film’s end. Valentine is quietly diligent but also fiercely opinionated, unafraid to defend the science fiction movies Maria hates (“If this was set on an assembly line or on a farm you would love it,” she says to Maria about Jo-Ann’s movie, set on a spaceship). She is simultaneously Maria’s employee, friend, daughter figure and emotional crutch.

Stewart is the first American actress to have won a César Award for her performance, and it’s unsurprising given her measured depiction of Valentine. Moretz’s Jo-Ann convincingly portrays a teenager trying to be an adult, and as a result her character feels appropriately detestable to the audience. She has a tough role — we are never introduced to her directly until the latter half of the film, and she initially appears only indirectly through YouTube videos and in Valentine’s commentary. Just like Valentine, Jo-Ann challenges Maria (“This poor woman’s washed up! I mean your character, not you,” she says on the opening night of “Maloja Snake”). though by this point in the film, the two are nearly indistinguishable.

In “Clouds of Sils Maria,” events occur and characters come and go without explanation. When Maria cuts her hair off after part one, we are meant to accept it and move on. When a pivotal character disappears during the second part, no one ever mentions her again. The characters really are absorbed in their own world, and they disregard the audience. Assayas doesn’t tell the story heavy-handedly; rather, he lets it unfold in the midst of mundane scenes of everyday life. He doesn’t care about telling a narrative the way the audience wants it told, and does not stop to explain what other directors might consider important plot elements.

The film does get tiring at points; Valentine and Maria have the same argument over and over again and rehearse the same lines, but the result is that the film manages to reach into these characters’ psyches in an impressive and very real way. Many viewers may find the many landscape shots of the Alps excessive, the pacing too slow, and the entire narrative too driven by dialogue. The film pays much more attention to a self-satisfied mulling over of events after the fact rather than the events themselves, which may be uncomfortable for those used to action-driven narratives. I often found myself fidgeting during the film, even checking the time at one point, but I realized that each repetition and long, drawn-out scene actually plays an integral role in the film’s development. These moments were not exactly exciting, but they were crucial to understanding the film’s complex characters.

“Clouds of Sils Maria” is unconventional, subtle and truly female-driven. The men in the movie seduce, cheat and die, and none are as self-aware or as introspective as the three female leads. The film broods, it sits, it talks (a lot), it contemplates and even when it gets a little too self-indulgent at times, it never ceases to be real. Aside from the often-jarring fades that Assayas employs throughout the film — which to me seemed like too obvious of a transition choice — there is very little that feels forced about “Clouds of Sils Maria.” Assayas has created a film that exposes the poignancy of relationships between these women, and Binoche and Stewart’s pairing is the most genuine of them all. They are friends, they are codependent, they could be lovers, and beneath the casual mockery and flirtation, beneath the surreal pretending and rehearsing, lies a very real desire from both women to be respected and to be loved — by society, by themselves and by each other.

“What do I need to do to make you admire me?” Maria asks Valentine desperately.

This time, she isn’t acting.

“Clouds of Sils Maria” is now playing at Amherst Cinema.

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