Movie review: Clouds of Sils Maria

(image via IMP Awards)
(image via IMP Awards)

 

It is truth well-recognised that time passes quickly.

What is often not so well recognised is that as it moves onward, ever onward, it doesn’t do so in a clean, uncomplicated way that leaves us unscathed; rather it leaves behind part of who we were which inevitably merges with who we are now, and who we are, bit by bit, becoming.

Nothing and no one is ever static and unchanging, a rarely acknowledged truism that only comes to have meaning to movie star Marie Enders (Juliet Binoche in exquisitely well-judged form as always) when she is offered the chance take part in a revival of the play that made her famous Maloja Snake by the reclusive playwright who gave her start in acting at the tender age of 18, Wilhelm Melchior.

The only catch is that instead of playing the young, calculating woman on the rise, Sigrid, the first character she gave life to as an actress, and for whom she understandably retains an inordinate amount of protective affection, she is instead asked, twenty years after her big break, to take up the role of the older, more vulnerable Helena by the revival’s director Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger).

As she grapples with the idea of playing the role of the tragic Helena, who is driven to suicide by her younger, manipulative lover, she begins to realise that taking on the part is redolent with all kinds of symbolic meaning for her own life.

It cuts especially close to the bone as she battles her way through a tumultuous period in her life that includes a traumatic divorce from her husband, the death of Melchior, with whom she enjoyed a close, affectionate friendship over many years, and the slow crumbling of the unusually close working relationship she enjoys with her personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart), whose interplay closely matches that of Sigrid and Helena save for the romantic coupling.

 

That is lot for anyone to handle at one time, and while Enders plows on regardless, accepting the role and retiring to Melchior’s home in the Alps, vacated by his widow Rosa (Angela Winkler), to practise her lines away from the harsh spotlight of modern celebrity, she comes to understand, in agonising fits and starts, that much has changed about her life.

She has become, as Valentine observes, exactly like the actress who play Helena the first time around – gently hidebound, set in her ways, no longer the brash new actress throwing rules and assumptions to one side in favour of re-inventing the acting rule book.

Stung by the accusation, one of many that an increasingly frustrated Valentine, who is constantly urging her boss and friend to stay fresh and sharp, flings at her, she is startled to realise that her resistance to playing Helena stems largely from slowly coming to appreciate she is too much like the character she has been asked to play.

The genius of the director Olivier Assayas, who also wrote the screenplay, is that he allows these minor and major epiphanies to play out organically in a drip, drip, drip fashion within the context of her relationships with Valentine, an old lover she now loathes Henryk Wald (Hans Zischler), and the Lindsay Lohan-esque actress Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), perpetually in the tabloid headlines for all the wrong reasons, who has been charged with bringing to life in the modern interpretation of the play.

There’s no melodramatic instant awakening nor a life changing turnaround, two developments that simply wouldn’t have wrung true for Enders, or anyone really who is newly struggling with their own mortality, and Assayas wisely allows these gathering home truths to pile up on Enders in ways that make sense and ring true with the authenticity of the human experience.

 

 

Perhaps the greatest insight gleaned from this slow-burning, moody drama is that in order for Enders to feel “not old” she must realise she is longer young; in other words, time has moved on and if she hangs on too tightly to who she was, including her almost sacrosanct attachment to Sigrid and all that role represented for her twenty years ago, she risks freeze-framing her life in ways that will turn her into the sort of ossified person she doesn’t want to be.

As a rumination on the constant struggle we all face between honouring who we were while still remaining opening to new experiences, it is brilliantly and deftly executed with the sort of nuance and understanding only a keen student of the human condition could bring to bear.

Taking place largely against the backdrop of the Swiss Alps, brought to life with stunning care by cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, who captures the majesty of the serpent-like Maloja Snake, a twisting, turning cloud formation that surges through the high valleys near Melchior’s home, Clouds of Sils Maria is an exquisitely realised testimony to the great costs of time’s passing but also its benefits and possibilities.

Split into three distinct acts, much like life itself, the films ably demonstrates, most strikingly through the relationship of Enders and Valentine – Binoche and Stewart enjoy remarkable, palpable chemistry which only adds to the vivacity of their characters – that the only way we can honour we were and who we are now is to forge on with the business of living, and leave the past largely where it is.

It’s a frightening prospect if our past is steeped in much that we value and wish to honour but an essential one if we are to truly carry on living and not simply mark time, alone with our ghosts and memories, watching as everyone and everything moves on, relentlessly, around us.

 

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