Clouds of Sils Maria - (French title - Sils Maria)

Clouds of Sils Maria - (French title - Sils Maria)

Postby CAP » Sat May 16, 2015 7:14 am

Being a bit of an Assayas tragic, I was always going to get around to this one. I haven’t seen all of the noted French cineaste’s work, but from what I have seen, Clouds of Sils Maria stands as a bit of departure in various ways – English language, set in Switzerland, focussing on a middle-aged female character. All are handled with aplomb. It is a clever story about an actress’s relation to her roles, the consequences for those around her and how these shift over the years. It is about her maturing charms or abilities, how these serve her art, steer her life. Ultimately it is about the exchange of art for life, fashion for nature. But for all its subtlety and sophistication, it is not quite as moving as it perhaps ought to be. I can only give it eight.

Apparently the story was conceived with Juliet Binoche in mind, Assayas having worked with her previously on Summer Hours (2008). The theme of an older artist reflecting on their past perhaps owes something to his previous production Après Mai (Something in the Air) with its strong autobiographical line. In any case, it is a plum, indeed plump role for Binoche in what is essentially a two-hander between an acclaimed and testy diva, Maria Enders (Binoche) and her personal assistant or secretary, Valentine, a young American (Kristen Stewart) as they retreat to the small lakeside resort of Sils Maria in the mountains of Eastern Switzerland (the village, incidentally, only recently coming to my attention in Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Ways of Curating, one of a number of uncanny coincidences here). Precedents run from Bergman's Persona to Mankiewicz's All About Eve for some critics, but Assayas stakes out an updated territory here, just as he adroitly switches the soundtrack from Baroque Pachelbel to 90s Primal Scream in summoning grander, underlying forces. The director has always had a special flair for pop music.

This confinement to both location and cast, as noted, seems striking for the director since many of his previous movies feature a circle or milieu of friends and family. Admittedly, I am judging with an imperfect knowledge of his work so I stand to be corrected on this point. However, this concentration seems new, perhaps marks a growing maturity or refinement of means (the director turns sixty this year). Yet this confinement begs a little more background than we are given. How the Paris-based Enders comes to have a young American assistant, for example, is particularly acute, since this clash of perspectives provides much of the impetus for the story. While Enders has worked in Hollywood, her focus seems to be with the theatre and Europe, leaving Valentine strangely misplaced or unqualified. She never speaks German or French, shows no indication of understanding any. Valentine, incidentally a female name I have not encountered too often. It may be a generational thing. I could not help being reminded of the similarly named (and aged) character in Nicola Barker’s novel The Yips, which I also recently reviewed. But I digress. Enders and Valentine’s compatibility would not be such an issue except that from the opening shot, a close-up of Valentine on her mobile phone, she is presented as Maria’s secretary and confidante so that the bond begs a little more explanation. And Stewart’s performance is nothing short of spell-binding, as the slouching, bespectacled and grimacing Californian, easily the equal of Binoche’s Enders. She was rightly rewarded with the movie’s only Cesar in 2014.

Similarly, we never really know whether Enders is a German or Swiss that has lived in Paris a long time (her French is certainly fluent) or French, comfortable with German and English texts. But here, the blurring is surely deliberate. The aim is to draw a generic European actress, a Euro Star for the global Anglo market. The cast also includes icons of the New German Cinema of the 70s, Angela Winkler (remember The Left-handed Woman or Knife in The Head?) and Hans Zischler (Summer in The City and Kings of The Road?) and initially I wondered if there wasn’t some more arch allusion, perhaps the story’s reclusive old playwright, Wilhelm Melchior, was meant to suggest Peter Handke (who lives in France these days, wrote and directed The Left-handed Woman) or even Michael Haneke (who is based in Paris now and with whom Binoche has worked)? But on reflection, I think the aim is really to evoke a shared European culture, adroitly marketed for an English-speaking audience. In pre-production there was even rumour of Daniel Bruhl and Bruno Ganz being added to the cast, both with global reputations and adding to the German accent.

But if we never really know how Enders and Valentine come to be together, the dynamics between them are quickly intriguing. Enders is the older generation, a little too self-absorbed to be maternal or even condescending but distinctly the cosseted and cultured European in contrast with the hip and gregarious American. Significantly, Enders aspires to heights, geographic and cultural while her assistant remains grounded in online gossip and texting. The younger generation! The story begins as they travel by train to Zurich to accept an award on behalf of Melchior and learn of his unexpected death. He had cast Enders in his play The Snake of Maloja, about an older woman’s tragic infatuation with a beautiful young employee, when Enders was just eighteen. It had been her big break and she had seen her character then as similarly a rising star. So Melchior holds a special place in her heart and news of his death jolts her. Also attending the ceremony is a young German stage director, Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger) anxious to restage the play with Enders now playing the older woman. But the shift in roles, a reminder of her shift in station, finds her reluctant. In theory, her maturity allows her to play the less sympathetic character with greater insight, but the memory of her first triumph seems somehow tainted by the prospect. However, given her options in crass television commercials and Hollywood fantasies, she eventually agrees.

Melchior’s widow, Rosa (Winkler) invites them to stay at her cottage in Sils Maria, where the play is actually set. At least I think it is. It seems a little incongruous, with a large company office as the main setting, but the title certainly alludes to a distinctive fog that 'snakes' around the lakes of the Maloja region during the summer months. Winkler, incidentally, I’d only seen recently in Tom Tykwer’s Three (2010) and instantly recognised her after an interval of around 35 years, amazingly. I toyed with writing about Three, but much as I like Tykwer, it’s a dud. It’s a sort of bi-sexual fantasy where two guys, into each other, impregnate the same woman. Not Winker, obviously, who plays the mother of one of them. And just a couple of days later, I was watching another German movie, Auf der anderen Seite - The Edge of Heaven ( 2007) – in which an almost unrecognisable Hanna Schygulla plays a granny. I must admit for a moment there I really wasn’t sure if it was whom I thought it was – having skipped the credits. But she still has that wonderfully sweet voice. Sigh. I’d know that anywhere. Granny or no, in her day she was a hottie. I probably should have written about that one. It was pretty good, largely set in Turkey, but as usual, other duties... Anyway, so much for my recent unexpected run on German oldies.

Back at Sils Maria, Enders goes over the play with Valentine, learning lines and considering interpretations as they hike through the surrounding hills, noting the famous fog. They toy with the sexual element to the infatuation, although power seems more salient. But quickly the discussion is really about Enders and Valentine, whether their attraction does not contain the same element. Well, it does not, really. Enders is in the throes of a divorce, but it is really her lost youth, the artistic potential there, that she craves. Valentine attempts to hook up with a young man she meets at the ceremony, but interestingly, even with Enders’ approval, as she drives down the mountain one night for a date, she becomes nauseous and has to pull over and vomit. Just what went wrong we never really learn, but her bid for a life apart from Enders seems thwarted internally. She relies upon Enders in ways Enders never realises. There is quite a daring scene for Binoche in which Enders goes swimming nude in the lake, accompanied by Valentine, stripped to her rather calculated underwear. I’m not exactly sure what that scene says or does. If anything it emphasises the distance between them but for the fifty-one year old Binoche it takes some nerve.

The pretext of revising the text gives us more of the story to The Maloja Snake, but also stretches the parallels between Enders and Valentine. One of the difficulties is the byzantine structure of tracing firstly the course of characters in the play, then, as these apply to the playwright’s own guarded life and then to Enders and Valentine. It is easy to miss crucial points. The parallels are not always exact either. Since Valentine is not an actress, attention to the character she ‘reads’ – ‘Sigrid’ – turns to the improbable casting of a young Hollywood starlet with a taste for scandal, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz). Why such a mischievous sprite should be attracted to stage work with an obscure young German director in Europe on a 90s revival rather stretches plausibility. And frankly, the actress’s baby face hardly carries the kind of ardour or dedication presumed of Sigrid. But Moretz is not so much the Sigrid we must have in the 21st century as the surrogate for Valentine or Valentine’s tastes. Valentine admires Ellis’ work and shows Enders You Tube clips to gauge the young star’s cool or chutzpah. Predictably, Enders rejects her since Ellis is nothing like Enders was at that age or in the character of Sigrid. But Valentine defends her as a brave and passionate actress, making the most of crude stereotypes in Hollywood space operas. And here it is really Stewart’s credentials as an actress (substituting horror for science fiction) that is contrasted with Binoche’s Euro art house record. The contrast is not just between European high culture and Hollywood trash but between sincerity and conviction to a performance. Valentine maintains sentiments may still be valid for a character despite the stale conventions of extreme fantasy while Enders looks for something more direct or natural in which to relate feelings. It is a classical – romantic stand-off really, and it may be that this too is reflected in the bathing scene.

The climax to the movie occurs when the two rise early to hike into the hills to witness the famous fog only for Valentine to unaccountably disappear. I can’t remember whether Valentine’s disappearance is meant to echo an event in Melchior’s life or The Maloja Snake, or both - but there is some analogy somewhere, since when it occurs it seems almost anticipated. I will have to watch it again, when I get time. But where does the disappearance leave Enders and the movie? True, her disappearance coincides with the appearance of the mysterious fog and its biblical connotations of temptation, if one dwells on the snake name. Valentine has perhaps taken her own life in unsuspected despair – an appropriate outcome given the playwright in the end also committed suicide. But Assayas, as other critics have noted, skips over these things (I detected something similar in Après Mai). The movie cuts to an Epilogue, complete with caption (uncomfortably recalling Woody Allen) some months later as the play is in rehearsal in London and Enders is introduced to another young movie director, who admires her classical or ‘timeless’ approach over the more self-conscious posturing of his contemporaries. This seems to console her in clearly a moment of doubt and she catches Ellis at the end of a dress rehearsal to firstly suggest then virtually beg Ellis to play their last scene together a little more respectfully, only to be firmly rebuffed. Ellis must be true to her own version of Sigrid. Sigrid starts to look a lot more of a bitch when you’re on the receiving end, might be the lesson.

The movie ends on that note, with Enders perhaps too proud to show disappointment or perhaps gracefully accepting her diminishing amount of the limelight. Either way, it seems a mild or non-committal note on which to end and significantly, no mention is made of the mysterious fate of Valentine, again avoiding just a little too much in resolution. The director is great at seizing dramatic issues, but less able at sorting them. There is drama here, but ultimately disappointment.
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