‘Clouds of Sils Maria’: A meta-mess

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For Digital First Media

How do you feel about growing older? For many people, it is a harrowing prospect.

Imagine if you were a middle-aged actress. No matter how talented you might be, you will inevitably be confronted with the dread reality of the industry’s ageism.

Such is the case with Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche). She is the lead character in “Clouds of Sils Maria,” the latest film from Olivier Assayas.

Maria is an accomplished actress at the apex of her international renown. However, she is struggling with insecurities. Maria is unable to reconcile herself to the unavoidable reality that youth is a thing of the past.

Maria has a hyper-efficient personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart). Valentine is busily engaged in orchestrating the details of her boss’ life. This includes not only Maria’s career, but her acrimonious divorce that is proving to be a distraction.

Maria’s big career breakthrough took place decades before, when she appeared in the theatrical and cinematic versions of “Maloja Snake.” The title does not refer to a serpent. Instead, it describes a distinctive meteorological phenomenon take takes place in the Maloja Pass of the Swiss Alps. When warm air rises up the slopes, it is transformed into clouds. These clouds then snake their way through Maloja Pass.

In “Maloja Snake,” Maria had played Sigrid. Her character is a faithless ingénue, who is the personal assistant to Helena, an accomplished, middle-aged actress. Helena becomes obsessed with Sigrid, who is half her age.

A screen capture from a trailer to the film "Clouds of Sils Maria" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zup27u6tMzY

A screen capture from a trailer to the film “Clouds of Sils Maria” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zup27u6tMzY

Now, Maria is aboard a train en route to Zurich. There, she will present a lifetime achievement award to Wilhelm Melchior, who had written and directed both the theatrical and cinematic versions of “Maloja Snake.”

Yes – just like “Maloja Snake,” the text of this film features an aging actress with a much younger personal assistant. Is that Meta enough for you or do you need to be hit over the head with a giant mallet?

Before Maria reaches Zurich, she receives some startling news-Melchior has died. In speaking with Melchior’s widow, Rosa, Maria learns that Wilhelm had been suffering from a terminal disease and taken his own life.

Despite the ominous development, the show must go on. Now, the honoree will not be there to accept the award. Instead, he will be feted posthumously with Maria as the principal speaker.

In Zurich, Maria has an unpleasant encounter with Henry Wald (Hans Zischler, a veteran of 171 films best known to American audiences as the Danish document forger in “Munich”). When Maria was a young starlet, the two had co-starred in a theatrical production. Off-stage, they became paramours. When the play ended, Henryk had callously cast Maria aside. Decades later, Maria still harbors a deep-seated resentment towards Henryk. Seeing Henryk again serves as a bittersweet reminder to Maria of the days when she was a blossoming beauty.

Before the ceremony, Maria is approached by Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), a well-regarded stage director. He proposes reviving “Maloja Snake.” There’s only one catch. This time around, Maria will play the older woman, not the younger character that had sparked her career.  Maria protests that she still identifies with Sigrid, not Helena.

However, Klaus has already lined up a notorious actress, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), to play Sigrid. Jo-Ann has starred in several Hollywood super-hero films and has a certain box office cache.  Off-screen, she is a total train wreck. Her substance abuse problems and other woes evoke Lindsay Lohan. We see cybertabloid footage of Jo-Ann at a press conference, trying to address questions while she is obviously under the influence. This is augmented by extremely unflattering footage of an impaired Jo-Ann battles with paparazzi.

Val drags Maria to see one of Jo-Ann’s Hollywood blockbusters. The two laugh hysterically at the film’s silly shenanigans. Incongruously, Maria is convinced by Val to play opposite Jo-Ann in the revised version of “Maloja Snake.” Wouldn’t Maria be deterred by the gimmicky aspect of the recasting?  Would she really risk her carefully-earned credibility by getting involved with such a dicey proposition? After all, her co-star is an unreliable actress, afflicted with substance abuse problems?

In preparation for the play, Maria and Val run lines together. The play’s dialogue is supposed to mirror the relationship that has developed between Maria and Val. However, there is a major problem dramatically. There is supposed to be a smoldering psychosexual intensity between the two women. However, none of it is captured on screen.

What are we left with? The film devolves into being a heavy-handed meta-reflection on the parallels between the stage characters of Sigrid and Helena; the film’s characters of Maria and Valentine; and the challenges that Binoche and Stewart have encountered in real life.

The film is immersed in further meta parallels. This film’s screenwriter/director, Olivier Assayas, had co-written “Rendez-vous.” The 1985 drama proved to be a star-making role for Binoche. Now, Assayas writes a screenplay about a character that Binoche might have played thirty years ago.  As Assayas has acknowledged, “The thing I was interested in was making not a film with Juliette Binoche, but a film about Juliette Binoche.”

“Clouds of Sils Maria” was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or in the main competition section at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. It later won the prestigious Louis Delluc Prize for Best Film and a César Award for Kristen Stewart for her supporting role in the film. It has elicited overwhelming critical praise. I regard these encomiums are being largely undeserved.

Its facile abstractions render “Clouds of Sils Maria” a meta-mess.

**1/2 R (for language and brief graphic nudity) 124 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.




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