A Woman in Full
By Michael Koresky
Clouds of Sils Maria
Dir. Olivier Assayas, France, IFC Films
Why is it that, in that slippery, often male-controlled medium known as cinema, women are so often doubled or made enigmatic? When we see a woman onscreen, why do we so often see a Woman? Is it because men are afraid of their power? Can a woman’s power not simply be human power, must it also be mysterious, even occasionally supernatural? Directors as beloved and brilliant as Ingmar Bergman, Robert Altman, David Lynch, and Olivier Assayas have created films in which their female characters’ beings are predicated not on being individuals but on being one another. They assume and often lose identities; this “enigma,” Persona and 3 Women and Mulholland Drive and demonlover tell us, comes from being somehow interchangeable, mutable. They are forced into societal roles, these films imply. And we love these films. Cinephiles love them; men, the wary straight and the adoring gay, yes, but also many women. Perhaps because no matter the frustrating and tantalizing implications of making all women Woman, these films are those rare works that cede power to female protagonists—no matter that, by virtue of their high-concept mechanisms, they also, finally, micromanage these women to the point that their power is almost always taken away.
It’s worth noting that women rarely make movies of this sort. Sweetie is Sweetie, she is not a shard or a half or a double of another woman, even her sister. Persona and 3 Women and Mulholland Drive are wonderful movies, spectacular even, for their aesthetic daring and empathy, but ultimately they are films by male tourists, gazing with terror, delight, lust, and envy at the Island of Woman. With the overall invigorating Clouds of Sils Maria, Assayas takes another curious glance across the ocean, and his film, more humane than demonlover (if not as purely emotional as Clean), continues the trend of making films about women that are equally about play-acting and performance, but Assayas’s unfussy style and adroitness at casually zeroing in on empathetic moments between people brings down to earth what could have been an overly high-concept drama about a woman in crisis.
The film also might have been cruel: Clouds of Sils Maria centers on a strong, aging woman. She’s played by Juliette Binoche, who excels at enacting and embodying the physical beauty of distress. In her best roles, she walks a line between purse-lipped indomitability and complete emotional wreckage—holding it all in with reservoirs of strength. She’s as compelling when simply staring straight past the camera for uncomfortable lengths of time (Camille Claudel 1915) as she is when rummaging madly through a pocketbook (Flight of the Red Balloon); she can be made sexless (Caché) or fiercely, frighteningly sensual (from Damage to Elles). In Assayas’s new film, she plays Maria, a major star—an icon of film and theater—who finds out that Wilhelm, a beloved director and longtime friend, has unexpectedly died while she is en route to a gala tribute in Switzerland for him. This creates a sudden rupture in Maria’s world, of the sort also seen in Assayas’s death-rattled Late August, Early September, in that it has the instant effect of making our main character take sudden stock of where she is in her life and career (Binoche is fifty, yet Maria claims to be forty—the discrepancy works). So Binoche is able to play both diva and victim, an actor’s jackpot in that both are given to grandiose gestures—ever surprising, though, Binoche turns inward, covering up her gift for emotional transparency so she can better disappear into a role that’s all about self-denial and concealment.
Maria is accompanied by her assistant, Valentine, played by Kristen Stewart, who’s the first person we see onscreen, being jostled on a train rushing through the wintry Alps, while she tries to sort out her boss’s personal matters. Assayas loves to plunge us into activity, and Valentine’s frenetic juggling—keeping on top of Maria’s divorce proceedings, her awards speech, endorsement offers, potential casting decisions—immediately lends the film its dynamic rhythm. It won’t come as a revelation to say that Assayas has better harnessed Stewart’s talents than any director thus far; rather than indulge her natural inclination to fold in on herself (which often reads onscreen as a studied, self-consciously sullen teenagehood), he has found and nurtured a new spark. In the role of a right-hand-woman—the kind of job where one must become both handler and protégé—Stewart has no choice but to be alert and attentive. She’s really listening, which makes her an integral part of the mise-en-scène as much as a compelling focal point in any given scene, even when she’s on the sidelines. However it’s not a position she necessarily appreciates: as with many personal assistants, Valentine sees this as a stepping-stone, but on what kind of career path? That matters less to her than what this grand dame really thinks of her, and much of the tension in their interactions comes from Valentine’s hunger for the older woman’s approbation.
That one can sense the same sort of relationship between whippersnapper superstar Stewart and seasoned Oscar-winner Binoche gives the film a great deal of its sly charm. Binoche’s Maria is clearly our guide, but through much of the film’s opening passages, Stewart’s Valentine is carrying her and thus the film. Once Maria has presented the award to the now late Wilhelm, and swallowed her pride at having to interact with the chauvinist actor who has been summoned to accept the prize on his behalf, she must deal with a new rupture, this one just as much linked to her perceptions of her own mortality. Klaus (Lars Eidinger), “a sick director,” according to an idolizing Valentine, has begun seriously courting her to star in a revival of The Maloja Snake, the play that made her a star. In her first acting role, at age eighteen, Maria was Sigrid, the younger half of a destructive May-December lesbian romance; this time she would have to play the middle-aged Helena. Klaus insists that the gulf between the characters is all in the mind: “Sigrid and Helena are one and the same person—that’s what the play is about.” But Maria is unconvinced and at first cannot be persuaded to take on the role, initially blaming superstition for not wanting to do it: the first actress who played Helena wound up committing suicide not long after. Of course there seems to be more to Maria’s resistance, something more concrete and common to actors and that has to do with a reckoning of the self, interior and exterior.
By the time the film transitions to part two, and winter has turned to summer, Maria, her hair shorn to butch lengths, has accepted the part and is rehearsing the script, often using Valentine as her scene sparring partner. As so often happens with fictions within fictions, we only get bits and pieces of The Maloja Snake, so much of what we hear sounds uncontextualized and banal, like a parodic reworking or Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Whether the play is supposed to be a trite treatise on female power dynamics or a profound meditation on the same (as the work’s semi-legendary status would have us believe) is unclear, and perhaps matters little. The fictional and “real” worlds of Assayas’s film bleed into one another so that the crassness of the former and the authenticity of the narrative proper at times feel inextricable from one another.
The role of Sigrid has been given to Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), a Lindsay Lohan-esque nineteen-year-old American whose alcohol and drug–fueled off-screen antics and celebrity breakups have helped her go, as Valentine explains, from “A-list to Z-list.” Initially, Maria doesn’t even know who Jo-Ann is, having to Google image-search her and look up her notoriously brash interviews and press conference shenanigans on YouTube. “She’s not completely antiseptic like the rest of Hollywood,” Valentine tells Maria, though even this appears to be a ruse. When Maria finally meets her, she is subdued, fawning, and herbal tea–drinking; they get along but there’s clearly no spark. This only further confirms that the film’s real central relationship is between Maria and Valentine, and that its parallels with Sigrid and Helena are more tenable and resonant than the literal role reversal Maria enacts with Jo-Ann. (This is also aided by the fact that Stewart is a far more compelling, naturalistic screen presence than the plasticine Moretz, who at least seems convincingly like a child out of her depths.)
The Maloja Snake is so named for the low-lying, serpentine-like cloud formation that slithers through the Engadin valley in the Swiss Alps on cold, early mornings. It’s in these mountains that Wilhelm lived and worked, so the promise of seeing this weather phenomenon begins to take on a particular poignancy for Maria. After Wilhelm’s widow, Rosa (Angela Winkler, in a movingly sculpted pocket performance), lets Maria and Valentine stay in her house for the season while she prepares for her role, Maria becomes increasingly determined to see the snake for herself. For her and for Assayas it seems to become a pursuit of something greater, a possible site of spiritual uplift. When we finally see these clouds, Assayas gives them the full emotional treatment, setting their drifting to Handel’s Largo. But what exactly they mean—to the pattern of the film, and to Maria—isn’t clear: their rare appearance is coupled with a major character’s disappearance, the meaning of both left unresolved.
Waiting for clouds to appear is an apt metaphor for watching an Assayas film. As he proved in the similarly playful hall-of-mirrors film Irma Vep, Assayas is adept at making high-concept films seem like they emerged naturally and spontaneously from thin air. The film is awash with narrative symmetries and parallels, but it plays so fast and loose (it’s made up of short scenes with many abrupt fade outs) that it doesn’t let itself get too heavy-handed. It’s no surprise that the least effective moments of Clouds of Sils Maria are the ones that seem most overly designed, like a Valentine’s disorienting, boozy late-night drive up a mountain road, woozy with superimpositions, or a tone-deaf parody of a Hollywood superhero movie, a mess of handheld camerawork and references to characters named “Dr. Pretorius” and “Scarlet Witch.” More successful is the scene in which Maria and Valentine debate the relative merits of that film; the former dismissing its “generic pop psychology,” the latter remarking genuinely upon its “dark and genuine” soul. Even though the movie within the movie looks utterly ridiculous, the film doesn’t appear to take sides on their difference of opinion, using it as another example of Valentine’s growing insecurity about Maria’s perception that she’s banal.
Valentine is too self-conscious to see what the audience can clearly see: that Maria does greatly respect the younger woman. She is perhaps a younger version of Maria—just like Helena and Sigrid are “the same person.” And like those fictional women, Maria and Valentine—not Maria and Jo-Ann—are simultaneously enacting teacher-student, master-slave, and mother-daughter relationships. It’s to the credit of Assayas, who’s occasionally rather fetishized a chic sort of lesbianism in films such as Irma Vep and demonlover, that he doesn’t push their bond into the realm of the sexual, although the possibility certainly hovers over the film. At the conclusion, when Assayas’s camera tracks and prowls through the set of The Maloja Snake—a claustrophobic, stiflingly modern maze of glass that’s wholly different from the expansive environment of the real Maloja Snake—Binoche’s Maria has become an actor stripped of vanity. Whether this is humiliating or empowering is perhaps up to the viewer to decide. No matter what we feel, Binoche’s plangent face doesn’t betray our confidence. One thing is for sure: for all of the film’s identity games, she has become herself at the moment that she might have vanished.