Saturday, May 02, 2015
"Clouds of Sils Maria": an aging actress finds that a play in which she is asked to play an older character now parallels her own life, too much
“Clouds of Sils Maria”, by Olivier Assayas, is a meta-film, a movie that maps its surface story onto an embedded work (here, a stage play “Maloja Snake”) to be performed by a character. In some ways, it resembles other movies like “Adaptation”, “Birdman”, and “The Humbling”.
The basic setup is that an aging actress, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is invited to play the older character in a play about a tempestuous lesbian relationship, a character who commits suicide, when she had played the younger woman twenty years before.
The film opens with a wide-screen image of Maria’s assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) standing in the well space between two train cars, shaking as if to induce motion sickness, managing simultaneous cell phone calls. Soon, Valentine goes back to the train booth, and they talk about Maria’s circumstances – divorce, not wanting to be in any more comics movies, and having her name removed from the imdb posting for one such film because bloggers kept talking about her and sundering her reputation. I’ve wondered how sensitive stars are to what “amateur” fans say about them on their own blogs or “fan sites”.
The main story starts when Valentine learns that the playwright has committed suicide, apparently facing cancer. That leads through various encounters to the invitation (by Skype) that Maria appear in a remake of the play as the older woman. It will be directed by Klaus (Lars Eidinger), and played by a questionable young actress Jo-Ann (Chloe-Grace Moretz), who has a dashing British boyfriend played by Johnny Flynn.
The film, divided by title cards into “two parts” and an Epilogue, where the play begins (it seems to happen in a large office set), seems improvisatory and episodic. The death of the playwright doesn’t have a lot of impact when it happens. Soon the characters are wandering in the most spectacular venues in the Alps (right out of “The Sound of Music” – some of the scenery looks CGI, but the hues of the distant mountains are interesting). There is a bizarre outdoor sequence toward the end where Valentine disappears.
The main point seems to be that Maria has to accept getting older, and becoming more like the unfortunate woman in the play. But the movie doesn’t give us very much detail about the play, other than the source of the title – the “snake” is a low-level cloud formation that moves into valleys in the Alps. It also shows us a clip from a sci-fi movie, a scene on a spaceship, in which Jo-Ann appeared, but doesn’t seem to connect it to the main plot.
In a couple of my own screenplays I experiment with ideas like this. In “Make the A-List”, my old “nemesis” vets my friends in an audition to make a movie about my own history. In “Do Ask, Do Tel: Conscripted”, “my” own history and stories are vetted in order to determine the future of other people on a space station (maybe a possible connection if this movie had followed that idea). In the novel “Angel’s Brother”, a new epidemic had been described in a character’s fiction before it actually “happens”.
The official site is here (IFC and Sundance Selects).
I saw the film before a fair audience at the AMC Shirlington.
Wikipedia attribution link for photo by Markus Bernet under Creative Commons Share Alike 2.5 License