In true celebrity style, we hear about her before we see her.
The film opens, and we are greeted by a professional-looking Kristen Stewart. Complete with thick, round glasses and a mobile phone attached to her ear. Maria Enders is a famous actress, known to star alongside actors such as Harrison Ford, and Valentine (played by Stewart) is her personal assistant.
This film concerns Maria and her struggles with passage of time and age when her close friend and Playwright Wilheim Melchior dies, and his famous play is revived. She is asked to revise a performance of the play, but this time not as her original character but as the older counterpart. From this, I expected the film to be quite pretentious in its’ approach, with an interest in the psychological genre that the plot description insinuates.
Clouds of Sils Maria was, however, much more subtle and sophisticated, a seductive view into the mind of a woman who is not ready to let go of her original character in the play, Sigrid – and in this – her reluctance to embrace the withered and desperate nature of her new character, Helena.
Slow to start, I can appreciate the ominous and melancholy overtones, feeling uneasy without quite understanding why. Jo-Ann, the new Sigrid, is introduced as a troublesome teen, dazzled by fame with a penchant for conflict, a perfect counterpart to the emotional turmoil Sigrid causes to Helena, and in this, the emotional turmoil Jo-Ann causes to Maria later on. Having just finished a Superhero film (reflexive of Chloe Grace Moretz’ shoot to stardom through the role of Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass (2010)). We don’t see Jo-Ann in a physical way until halfway through the film, parallel to the delayed introduction of the main character at the beginning of the film – building questions and tension as to who they are and what they will bring to the film.
The cinematography displayed in this film is intelligent and engaging, with stunning establishing shots of the alpine landscape to emphasise the importance of the specific space that the film is set in, whilst also highlighting the loneliness of Maria’s individual struggle throughout the film. The isolated landscapes serve to parallel the emotional journey of solitude Maria has to face. In addition to this, age and passage of time is pushed to the forefront of the film through not only themes but also the intercutting of old cinema footage during Maria and Valentine’s visit of Rosa, Wilheim’s wife.
We follow Maria and Valentine as they rehearse for the revival of the play. It is interesting to note that Maria rehearses mainly with Valentine and not with Jo-Ann, especially as we have gained knowledge of the intimacy and closeness these characters possess as friends and work colleagues. This is reflexive through the way that Sigrid and Helena in the play are also friends and work colleagues.
Juliette Binoche captures beauty, elegance and strength, whilst also exposing the vulnerabilities and anxieties of a woman worn down by the weight of a play that has haunted her for twenty years. Her on-screen chemistry with Kristen Stewart is undeniable – a closeness is portrayed that each knows what the other is thinking or feeling, sharing the enormity of the task ahead. Stewart’s subtlety is to be credited here, serving as Maria’s voice of reason and travelling companion. In comparison, Chloe Moretz’ intensity and dazzling mischief is enchanting to watch, a twinkle in her eye that emphasises her knowledgeable feigned innocence.
I feel that this film has many merits. It calls into question ideas of achievement and happiness, and how much the passage of time and ageing effects the perspective that people have on the world and others around them, both in work and in personal relationships. Blending quiet, stunning scenery and close relationships with scenes of passionate despair give the film a sophisticated bleakness that serves to leave a mark on the viewer. The fault of this film, however, is the lack of response to Valentines’ disappearance and confused subplots. Jo-Ann’s personal scandal at the end of the film overtakes the shock of Valentines’ disappearance and Maria’s centrality in the film, which could be argued to be the point – Jo-Ann replacing Maria as the central character – however I feel that this undermines the carefully constructed tensions that have been built up throughout the duration of the film.