Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria is a complex meditation on subjects such as: life, death, ageing, and relationships between close associates (both of the opposite and the same gender). It probes how participation in art affects a participant’s life, how life shapes art, how the contemporary celebrity culture affects celebrities, and, ultimately, how one might face these challenges in life.
Indeed, it is a lot to tackle in a film which lasts just over two hours, and sadly this is by no means a flawless film. The reason I state this with much regret is that there are moments in which Clouds of Sils Maria achieves majestic heights with intensity, nuance, and a deep understanding of the human struggles with the subjects described above. Interestingly, the flaws of the movie are not due to the fact that it is tackling too many complex subjects all at once. There are undoubtedly signs of greatness. The problem is this: It is a great story told by the wrong director. Thus, despite that the final cut represents a missed opportunity, it still is not one to be passed over.
It is a story of Maria (Juliette Binoche), an accomplished actor who is internationally recognised as one of the finest actors of her generation. On her way to Zürich to receive an award on behalf of a celebrated play-write and director, Wilhelm, she receives news of his sudden death through her devoted personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart). For Maria, Wilhelm is a central figure in her life; he cast then 18-year-old Maria for the main role, Sigrid, for his play Maloja Snake, and later cast her again for the movie production of the play for the same role. Shaken, yet too late to turn back, Maria joins the award-giving ceremony to honour her memory of Wilhelm. During the obligatory post-ceremony dinner, Maria is visited by a film director, Klaus (Lars Eidinger). Klaus confides to Maria of his plan to produce Maloja Snake, and offers the role of Helena, an older counterpart of Sigrid. Initially Maria is apprehensive of the proposal, for she has been identifying herself with Sigrid since she first played the role, and she finds Helena uninteresting. Yet, Klaus’ interpretation of the two roles interests her, and he eventually secures her service. Maria prepares herself for the role of Helena in Wilhelm’s house upon a mountain which is offered by Wilhelm's widow (memorably performed by Angela Winkler from The Tin Drum). While using Valentine as her counterpart, Sigrid, Maria continues to struggle with her new role, that of an established woman who destroys herself by means of her obsession for a younger woman. In the process, her relationship with Valentine starts to transform.
Juliette Binoche delivers an inspired performance as Maria. While this is what we all expect from a quality actor like Binoche, this time, she demonstrated such skill that she simply left me in awe. Binoche is probably one of the best actors of all time when it comes to playing a person grieving, as she ably demonstrated in Kieślowski’s Blue. However, as the story moves forward, she delivers a whole lot more: joy, anger, fear, irritation, disdain, defiance, hesitation…the sheer range of emotions she embodies from one moment to another as Maria is simply astounding. I am convinced that the majestic heights this film achieves at times owes to the presence and performance of Binoche, and the forbidding beauty of the Alps where the majority of the story unfolds. Throughout the film, they have no equal in sight.
The reason I give such credit to Binoche is that she is the only person in this movie carrying the story that needs to be told. There are many points where Assayas fails not to spoil what is already great. If he could have let the story unfold itself, with a recast and some tweaks in the plot, it could have been a far greater feature. There are quite a few sequences which simply do not belong in this movie. For example, there is a scene in which Valentine drives through the foggy and twisty Alpine roads at night, and the way the sequence is directed and edited is absurd. The same goes for some of the sequences that focused on the Internet and Hollywood, the toxic mixture that breeds the much decried tabloid culture. Not withstanding his disdain of celebrity culture, however, Assayas demonstrates an unhealthy obsession to this subject and invests too much screen time on it. In addition, the way he handles the scenes featuring Jo-Ann (Chloë Grace Moretz) makes me think that Assayas is trying too hard to bring in his trademark kitsch, which is best represented with his earlier feature, Irma Vep. The problem is: these are two completely different movies. Thus, it is clear that Assayas fails to grasp the spirit of this story. Fortunately, there are enough moments where the majestic force comes forth despite all too frequent, unwelcome, and absolutely unnecessary interventions by Assayas.
As represented by the awe-inspiring performance of Binoche, the potential for this film to become a masterpiece is there. Then one should ask oneself: How can it be fixed? In order to answer this question, we need to first see this movie as a Bergman film pictured in contemporary Switzerland, instead of Sweden. This story is about a human drama which must be expressed with utmost intensity and care. A stern and enclosed environment in the Alps, the silent presence of the deceased play-write and his obsession for the clouds called Maloja Snake, and the troubling present haunted by the troubled past…. How could Assayas have missed all the cues? There is no time to indulge ourselves with inessential subjects that rage external to this confinement, such as the Internet and tabloid culture. This story is all about characters, and their human experience through the company of each other in a forbiddingly isolating topography. Once all the noise is cut, then finally, there is space and time for the story to come forth.
Unfortunately, there is no more Bergman. Indulge me, if you will: the choice of the three main characters is easy enough. Obviously, Binoche is here to stay as Maria. Then who can match her intensity and understanding in contemporary cinema from the younger generation? My proposal is to replace Stewart with Carey Mulligan as Valentine, and I would pick Saoirse Ronan as the ‘new Sigrid’ (Of course, I will rename this character: 'Jo-Ann' is absolutely atrocious.) I’d present her character as someone who is unknown in the film world, yet, true to the spirit of the character Sigrid—strong, intelligent, private yet unafraid, without all that tabloid non-sense. After Zürich, I would simply lock up Binoche and Mulligan in the Alps, later to be joined by Ronan. Through silence, dialogue, gaze, and gestures, they will reveal the full potential of this story in all its majesty. It is a tantalising prospect.
Now, you might ask yourself: Why should I spend time watching this film, which is supposedly nothing but a missed opportunity? Well, to realise what it is, first you have to sit and experience this film. And, like the mystical Maloja Snake, a glimpse of its majestic beauty alone is worth all the trouble in the world. Even if you choose not to explore the possibility of greatness in this film, there is still Binoche, and her acting alone makes it a must-watch.