Caught in the Act
Juliette Binoche’s Clouds of Sils Maria
by Shonni Enelow
Juliette Binoche deserves authorial credit for Clouds of Sils Maria—not only because her performance rivets the film, captivating even scenes in which she cedes the floor to her fellow actors, and not only because by all accounts the film was partially her idea. We should credit Binoche as the true author because this, in fact, is what the film itself concludes. This is a film, written and directed by a man—Olivier Assayas—about the relationship between the male auteur and the female performer, that begins with the death of one idealized version of the former and ends with the determined, if uneasy, triumph of the latter. What happens, the film asks, if we really accept the death of the father figure many of us unwittingly hold onto as the progenitor of art? Where does that death put us in relation to other women: will we end by replicating the old dynamics amongst ourselves, vying for the attention of a new master? And where does that leave us in relation to the camera, and the spectators, if the unity and centrality of the male gaze is no longer certain?
In Clouds of Sils Maria, the auteur in question is a writer/director named Wilhelm Melchior, who, twenty-odd years ago, wrote a play called Maloja Snake (named after a famously menacing cloud formation in Sils Maria, Switzerland) and cast the then-unknown Maria Enders as the young woman named Sigrid who seduces and abandons her older female boss, Helena. In the film’s first scene, we’re introduced to a now-mature Maria (Binoche) and her personal assistant, Valentine, called Val (played by Kristen Stewart), who are on a train to Zurich, where Maria will accept an award for the reclusive Melchior, who, as she puts it in a draft of her acceptance speech, “gave me everything I needed to build a career—my career.” That pause (“a career—my career”) is telling, as much of the movie considers what it means for a woman’s career to have been constructed by a man, and in particular, what it means for Maria’s career today, given (as we learn in this opening scene) that Melchior has died.
Clouds of Sils Maria begins in a flurry of telecommunication, immediately contradicting the pastoral tones of its title: we may be on a train through the Alps, but really we’re inside the global circulation of celebrity, fueled by a quicksilver gossip machine and the scrolling feed of requests-qua-demands that keep the star in the service of the public by perpetually renewing its claims on her body, image, and name. The multiple media in which the film’s actors appear (theater, film, and video, but also more dispersed forms of mediation, like Val’s iPad, the CCTV in a green room, Skype video calls, and clips from talk shows posted to the Internet) and the constant shifting between those media’s different registers and different publics are presented as an aesthetic, emotional, and ultimately political problem: the first words out of Maria’s mouth are a comment on the enmeshment of network information and private life (“Did you read this article about Google and users’ private information? It’s disgraceful. They have too much power”); the line between intimate communication and public spectacle is not so much blurred here as assumed to be already obsolete. And the film presents this dispersal of media as a particularly vexed issue for women. The end of certain cultural hegemonies, the death of certain Melchior-fathers (genuinely painful though they may be), might offer the chance for female performers to create their own narratives. But pragmatically, most are still required to fit into one of a few roles and to work under the aegis of men, some enlightened, some not. This might feel fine as long as you’re anointed by them, but what happens when the anointment dries up? What is there, in the myriad media platforms that demand so many different genres of performance, “worth playing”?
After a new director, Klaus, “probably the best of his generation,” persuades Maria to act in his revival of Melchior’s play in the opposite role, Helena, the actress sets off for Melchior’s cottage in the mountain landscape of Sils Maria to rehearse with Val standing in as Sigrid. The two women move between practicing the lines in the script and working through their own complex relationship, blurring the play’s fiction and the film’s. The character of Val clearly parallels that of Sigrid, and it’s true that as they rehearse Melchior’s play the film moves close to well-trod “doubled women” territory (see Michael Koresky’s astute review in this publication, which compares the film to Persona and 3 Women) as it portrays their relationship. But it’s to the credit of these actresses that these scenes never land on a tired thesis about “womanhood”—which they could have, had these characters been played with less wit, intelligence, and intimacy that feels earned, and did the film not incorporate and subtly, but profoundly, dismiss that narrative. It’s the tiresomely sleek Klaus who believes “Sigrid and Helena are one and the same person” (and later presides over a stage set filled with mirrored glass panels: the on-the-nose approach). Maria doesn’t think so, and the film follows her perspective: much of the drama in its middle section (the rehearsals in Sils Maria) is built from Maria’s refusal to be a Helena who is simply the defeated, deflated version of her younger self.
Even more importantly, the film itself directly comments on and ultimately resists the script Melchior has bequeathed them. “It’s a male fantasy,” Maria mutters at one point, disgusted with the dialogue she’s rehearsing. Now that she’s on the other side of the coin—no longer the sexy Sigrid (whose name recalls Wagner’s virile hero Siegfried), but the older woman whom the play punishes for her success and power by erotically destroying—she sees, perhaps for the first time, how the deck has been stacked. Val defends the script—“It’s an interpretation of life, it can be truer than life itself,” she says—on the same grounds that she defends the acting of Jo-Ann Ellis, the baby-faced bad girl/ingénue cast as Sigrid (played by Chloë Grace Moretz, who, when we glimpse her mouthing off on a talk show, is dressed exactly like one Kristen Stewart, all asymmetrical dark bangs and bejeweled Balmain), in the 3D action movie Maria and Val go see her in: the artificiality of the generic convention doesn’t matter, what matters is the authenticity of the performance. “There is no distance there,” are the words Val uses to praise Jo-Ann’s acting, and thanks to the film’s complexity of perspective we hear her speaking both as an idealistic believer in the art form and as a naive adherent to the fake intimacy machine of Internet culture (as well as, of course, Kristen Stewart, who knows something about trying to act her way through contrived genres). But for Maria, performance no longer holds out the promise of breaking through convention, and she’s unable to not have distance—to not think critically—about the roles she’s asked to play.
In the end, it’s clear that the good part here isn’t Helena: it’s Maria Enders, played by Juliette Binoche. Though some may disagree, I think it’s important that Maria is correct: the script of Maloja Snake is dated and problematic, and the staging doesn’t look too inspired, either (it’s a kind of Ivo van Hove/Builders Association mash-up, all glass and white-box “levels”). And the film clearly doesn’t side with Klaus, the pale Melchior replacement who, “like every artist of his generation, [has] a flair for PR,” (as Maria puts it) and who finds it more pressing to obsequiously protect Jo-Ann from the paparazzi than talk to Maria about the play. In Clouds of Sils Maria, the true artist is Maria herself––which is to say, it’s Binoche, the actor who doesn’t just embody the script (as the cliché would have it) but defines its contours, shapes its flows, and, crucially, who has earned the right to knowledge and authority about the work. “You can decide not to look any further, but I had to because I played her,” Maria says early on, contradicting (yet another) male would-be authority on the play; she later tells Val, “Thinking about a text is different from living it.” This emphasis on the actor’s embodied knowledge is an important way the film positions its relationship to theater: the old saw that film is the director’s medium, theater the actor’s, becomes an occasion to consider the reverse. On stage, so far as we can see from the film’s epilogue, which shifts to London where the revival of Maloja Snake is about to premiere, Klaus’s design concept overwhelms Maria, who is stuck in the back with Jo-Ann downstage center. But the film refuses to follow suit, instead ending on a beautifully framed close-up on Maria’s face, giving us a form of intimacy with the actress unavailable in any other medium.
Finally, then, this is a film about the centrality of the actress. I insist on “actress” just as I insist that it’s crucial to the film’s meaning that all the directors in it are male, and not a sexist accident, or even just a gesture towards realism. This is a film about the relationship between the female actor and the male writer/director, which tracks the structural inequalities that prevent the character from realizing what the film itself ultimately proves for the actress: that she has the power to create her own meaning.
The proof comes in the final, heartbreaking scene between Jo-Ann and Maria, in which the actors’ performances utterly contradict the apparent argument of the dialogue, demonstrating not only the artistic agency of actors but the way Clouds highlights this creative power by honoring Binoche over the series of men who have written and directed her scripts (and, indeed, over the younger woman prized by them to whom she’s supposed to subordinate herself). After the dress rehearsal, Maria stops Jo-Ann on her way out, asking her if she would pause for a second before abandoning Helena on stage. “Nobody really cares about Helena at that point anyways,” Jo-Ann says, savoring her hold over the other woman with such obvious cruelty that Moretz’s delivery rings false. But Binoche relents with one of her most brilliant deliveries of the film: “You’re right,” she says, smiling broadly through her humiliation, then suddenly looks away. “I’m lost in my memories,” she explains, distracted, melancholic, and though her performance is eminently subtle, it also channels the cast-aside women of melodrama who bravely endure degradation and in the process gain emotional supremacy over the screen. This is ostensibly a scene about Jo-Ann’s control over the stage production, but there is no question who controls the film here: Maria Enders may be humiliated, but Juliette Binoche is triumphant. I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that Moretz’s weak performance was intentional, but the effect is clear: the unfeeling arrogance of Jo-Ann, as played by Moretz, is not only ethically repellent, but also dramatically flat; the frank vulnerability of Maria, as played by Binoche—the vulnerability that is essential to good acting, the capacity to take in pain, to be wounded, which opens up actors to all sorts of injuries, something Maria understands from the beginning (initially refusing Klaus, she tells him she’s too vulnerable) and that lies at the heart of Binoche’s genius (on view, for instance, in the films she made with Leos Carax and Krzysztof Kieslowski, in which her emotional openness very nearly overwhelms the screen)—is utterly compelling. Val was right, but not so much about the script or about Jo-Ann: it’s Binoche whose humane performance transforms what could have been a tired convention (female cross-generational competition, All About Eve meets Mean Girls), and who ultimately gives the lie to both Klaus’s directing and to Melchior’s script.
To understand what Binoche is working against, let’s return to Melchior, his house in Sils Maria, and what they represent in the film, whose titular setting is clearly significant but obliquely so. On the one hand, Melchior and Sils Maria stand in for history, high culture, old Europe, and intellectual seriousness (Sils Maria is where Nietzsche spent productive years), and provide a stark contrast with nowhere/everywhere globalized Internet culture. On the other hand, the film portrays high and low cultures as not merely as enmeshed but as mutually dependent and determining: for instance, the gala starts with a Chanel photo shoot, and we hear Handel not only as Val and Maria drive to Melchior’s cottage but also when we meet Jo-Ann (whose parents were classical musicians). This disorienting dissolution of cultural boundaries speaks to the film’s meditation on the transformation of aesthetic temporality apparently wrought by new media. Interruption is an important formal element of Clouds, and as an element it tracks in unusual ways across the technological divide: we get interruptions of live scenes by the computer-as-portal, the interruption of the spectator’s gaze with many unexpected fade-outs, but also the interruption of the constant flow of information by the landscape itself, which literally interrupts Val’s phone calls. But the film refuses to presents this as an exclusively contemporary phenomenon; rather, it demonstrates it as a latent capacity of film montage itself—the overlays of past and present, the juxtaposition of different frames and different images for instance, when we cut unceremoniously into a 1922 film about the real Maloja snake, which turns out to be a film Maria and Melchior’s widow are watching. In fact, the film relates Maria herself to these overlays of different eras and media: at the end, when a new (young, male) director arrives backstage to offer Maria a part in his film, he tells her that the character “has no age, or she’s every age at once, like all of us,” before contemptuously dismissing Jo-Ann. There’s of course something satisfying about this reversal of fortune (Maria on top again), but it’s something of a Pyrrhic victory, as her fortunes have been determined, once again, by a man, and you sense this in Maria’s face as she takes her place on the stage with a vague smile.
But why Sils Maria, and why the clouds? Obviously, there’s a reason the main character is named Maria: on the most literal level, these clouds are hers. Or are they Melchior’s; is this another sign that Melchior created Maria? Do they belong to the world of the play Maloja Snake, where they seem to figure the misty entanglement of the two women? (This hypothesis would find support in a scene which at first glance feels out of place, in which Val gets lost in thick clouds while on her way to meet a male suitor—the first time we see the snake in real time—and, nauseated by the winding mountain road and also apparently by her uneasy sense of romantic loyalty to Maria, ends up back in bed at the cottage.) Maria and Val never really see the snake; they get up early one morning to hike to the mountain top, but at the moment of its possible arrival (which isn’t even clear—“is that the snake?” Maria calls out, as the camera slowly moves closer to her), Val disappears, at last following up on her threats to leave, and, reversing the older/younger female roles, mirroring Helena’s disappearance in the play.
Val’s unceremonious exit from the film (we never hear what happens to her, and when we jump ahead in time, Maria is with another assistant) is startling, and demonstrates the depth of her own need to escape from her subordination to Maria. But reading her disappearance alongside the nonevent of the Maloja snake (and the nonevent of Maloja Snake, which we never really see) also allows us to discern the clouds as a metaphor for the evanescence of performance itself and the power of film to capture and frame that disappearance. The characters only ever glimpse Maloja Snake in refraction, like the reflective glass of the theater set, but as movie viewers, we get privileged views of it, in gorgeous cinematography, first in the 1922 film, and then in a long sequence underscored by Pachelbel’s Canon after Val disappears. The technological elasticity of time and place is another significant way that film distinguishes itself from theater: in the theater, the time that the performance takes to unfold is the same for the actor as it is for the audience; film, in contrast, presents multiple time-images, and is thus the medium in which Maria really can be every age at once. Clouds of Sils Maria frames for us its own medial capacity to capture what has already disappeared: the performance that, like the aging body, is in a crucial sense already gone. And this is what is finally so moving about the film, and why it’s so essential that we consider Binoche its author if its own best ideas—about gender, about media, about time and performance—are going to be respected. This is her film.