Maria is Sigrid. And so it has been for 20 years.
When Maria took the role of Sigrid in Wilhelm Melchior's famed play (and eventual movie) Maloja Snake, she became a star. She so perfectly played Wilhelm's young, ambitious temptress—an ingenue who bewitches her fortysomething female lover, Helena—that Maria practically became her. And even though she went on to great success with other roles on the European stage and Hollywood screen, she never lost her affection for her first critical character. It's only fitting, then, that Maria should be the one to give Wilhelm a career-capping award at a lavish Swiss gala.
But Wilhelm dies suddenly the morning before the banquet. What was supposed to honor a living, active playwright becomes a eulogy, and the news hits Maria hard. But she's a professional—a professional actress—and with the help of her ever-present female assistant Valentine, she attends the ceremony, smiles at dinner and suffers, for the most part, in silence.
During the meal, Valentine insists that Maria chat with Klaus Diesterweg, a talented director who hopes to bring a revamped version of Maloja Snake back to the theater. He wants Maria to star—not as strong, young, driven Sigrid this time, but as Helena. Older, weaker, fragile Helena.
"Sigrid and Helena are one and the same person," he tells her. "And because you were Sigrid, only you can be Helena now."
Maria balks. Yes, she's older, she admits. But she cannot see herself in Helena's desperate groveling, her pitiful desire. She adds that she's not in the right frame of mind to give her all to such a role, what with Wilhelm's death and her messy divorce. "I'm probably too vulnerable to do this," she demurs. There's an element of superstition to her reluctance, too. You see, Maria believes Helena commits suicide in the play (though the ending is ambiguous). And the woman who originally played Helena died in a car crash. Doom hangs over the character, Maria feels. She wants no part of it.
And yet the pull is undeniable. Perhaps there is no better way to pay homage to Wilhelm than by slipping into one of his characters again. Perhaps it will help cement her reputation as one of the world's best actresses. Perhaps she feels something in the character that she can't even admit herself. Perhaps she simply must, finally, accept the part. Her part.
Maria clearly cares for Wilhelm (though she admits she didn't know him that well). Similarly, she and Wilhelm's widow, Rosa, share a sincere friendship. Beyond that, there's little explicit positivity in Clouds of Sils Maria. No one saves babies from burning buildings or takes a brave stand for God and country. This is a different sort of drama—one that explores themes of age and time and relationship in a delicate, Delphic way. It lampoons easy-to-digest movie morality (Maria and Valentine watch a superhero movie, which Maria heartily mocks) in favor of trying to burrow into the psyche and motivations of its players. These are not characters you feel compelled to root for, but rather think about. If there is a positive, it is in that quality—the movie's sincere effort to give us images of the human condition on which we are to mull.
As mentioned, the prime players in Wilhelm's play are lesbian lovers. Maria and others talk at length about what motivates both Helena and Sigrid, and we see snippets of the play itself. Helena has deep feelings for Sigrid. Whether Sigrid feels at least some of that attraction or whether she's simply using sex as a tool of advancement (and eventual weapon against Helena) is much more open to debate.
In the course of reading lines at Wilhelm's chalet, reality begins to reflect the play itself. Maria, trying to dig into Helena's psyche, begins to develop conflicted, unspoken feelings for Valentine. Though nothing sexual happens, Maria shows signs of jealousy when Valentine leaves to meet a beau. And when the younger woman slinks back into the chalet from a nocturnal rendezvous, Maria watches as she sleeps—eyeing her backside, covered only with a thong.
Maria and Valentine skinny-dip in a mountain lake: Valentine strips down to her underwear, while Maria frolics nude. (We see her briefly from the front, and a bit longer from the back.) It's a scene that seems meant to illuminate Maria's deeply personal, vulnerable and exposed journey into the character Helena and into age itself. But it's a sexually provocative and unnecessarily explicit scene, nonetheless.
We hear of an affair Maria had. And we watch as Maria navigates the temptations of re-starting something with that man (who she now, mostly, thinks is a jerk). At the same time, Jo-Ann Ellis, a Hollywood bad girl picked to play Sigrid, is having an affair with a married man. (We see the two kiss and hold hands.) It's said that Jo-Ann has posted nude photos of herself on Instagram, and Maria runs into other seductive pictures of the young woman while doing a Google search.
A woman tries to commit suicide (offscreen) after learning her husband had an affair (by slitting her wrists, we're told). A man kills himself by overdosing. And, as noted, the fictional Helena may end her own literary life as well.
While reading lines, Maria sometimes roughly pushes past Valentine or shoves stuff off tables. Maria is playacting, but a confused Valentine, who's reading Sigrid's part, takes it personally. "You hate the play, you hate her," Valentine says. "You don't have to take it out on me."
A "perverse, violent" man is said to "hit women." There's some discussion of whether a sex act was rape or love. In the superhero movie, a character is vaporized.
Crude or Profane Language
About 25 f-words and 10 s-words. There's also one c-word. We hear "a--," "b--ch" and "h---," and characters make obscene gestures. God's name is misused four or five times, Jesus' twice.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Maria, Valentine and others smoke cigarettes. Most everyone drinks wine, beer and hard liquor, sometimes to excess. Drunk, Valentine gets behind the wheel of a car … and backs straight into another vehicle. (Maria tells her to drive away before anyone notices.) Web footage shows Jo-Ann drunk and stoned. We learn that she was arrested for driving under the influence.
Other Negative Elements
We watch Valentine throw up. Maria gambles.
Both the title of the movie (Clouds of Sils Maria) and the play within the movie (Maloja Snake) refer to the same curious weather pattern found in the Alps when a ribbon of clouds snakes low through the mountains. We're told these clouds, through the ripples and eddies, reveal what really resides beneath them. They also are a harbinger of stormy change.
Maria is in the midst of such a change. She came to fame by embodying a vibrant, youthful, strong, ruthless character. But now, 20 years hence, she's no longer Sigrid. She's someone else. And that's painful for her to accept.
"I'm Sigrid!" she says when trying to back out of the Helena role. "I want to stay Sigrid!" She's echoing the thoughts and feelings of any number of us of a certain age. It's hard, sometimes, to let go of youth. And because she can see nothing in the older Helena but insecurities and weakness, it makes her all the more loathe to do so.
It's interesting that everyone around her can see more in the character than she can. Valentine tells her that Helena has a different sort of strength, and that her vulnerability is winsome. "The text is like an object," she says. "It's going to change perspective based on where you're standing." But Maria stood in Sigrid's shoes for so long she can't seem to move. In the end, she's forced to accept that she can no longer play Sigrid, but whether she's able to see the possibilities in a new character—and the possibilities of life beyond youth—that's hard to say, and the movie studiously refuses to answer the question for us. When a young director asks Maria if she'd be interested in playing a part he says is "outside age," she still backs away, suggesting he talk to Jo-Ann instead.
I like what Valentine says, though, about the text being like an object. Movies are a little like that, too. What one sees in Clouds of Sils Maria can be very dependent on where one stands. Some will see this as a profound and prickly rumination on age. Some will see an interesting character study, bolstered by terrific performances (including a surprising turn by Twilight veteran Kristen Stewart). But all will see same-sex attraction accompanied by profanity and nudity.
The clouds of Sils Maria cover the landscape, and yet they reveal it as well. This namesake movie hides and reveals things about its characters, its viewers and about the nature of cinema itself.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Juliette Binoche as Maria Enders; Kristen Stewart as Valentine; Chloë Grace Moretz as Jo-Ann Ellis; Lars Eidinger as Klaus Diesterweg; Johnny Flynn as Christopher Giles; Angela Winkler as Rosa Melchior; Hanns Zischler as Henryk Wald
Olivier Assayas ( )
April 10, 2015
July 14, 2015