Olivier Assayas’s film “Clouds of Maria’s Sils” is a slow, layered meditation on living life in the moment, without discounting the past or the future. At times it is like watching sand filter through an hourglass, rushed yet somehow wasted. Time is the centering theme and the clouds’ movements life’s metaphor. Sils Maria is a place name. High in the Swiss Alps southeast of Switzerland, .it becomes a retreat for the famous actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche). Binoche, always a favorite of mine, is easy to identify with as she prepares to give homage to her first director at a Zurich award ceremony. The seventy-one year old Wilhelm Melchior commits suicide before the tribute can be given. The first layer of sand is sprinkled. Life is short, personal and mysterious.
This is a film for people who want to discuss film as a life-recording vehicle akin to the novel. Images will not be forgotten. We begin with a dark, shaking train ride where all are on cell phones. We meet Maria’s personal assistant,easily played by Kristen Stewart,and learn that Maria is negotiating the terms of her divorce. Window reflections mirror the transience of relationships while we hear Maria bolstered by “You love him. Words will come. You will be true to him”. The second layer of this story within a story is laid by watching Stewart meet every need and whim of Maria. No fruit basket, no tv, less Internet, less regret, more nature, exercise and line practices. We learn how much Maria is invested in her career and how seriously she inhabits her characters. M. Enders at the close of her career is not ready to end anything.
The clouds bring sadness, but joy, too. And no one can light up the screen with their laughter like Binoche. We see her skinny dipping and cavorting in unctuous praise. We see her enjoying a warm sun nap on a cliff’s edge, and we see her scream “I can not accept it” with equal relish. This women knows how to live in the moment. I strongly imagine Binoche does,too. She is just so good at being present. She fills the screen.
Part Two introduces us to the Maloja Snake. I thought this cloud formation more resembled a dragon as it moves and encompasses every craggy crevice of the river valley below. It is a perfect metaphor for time’s passage. Much more beautiful than the fragile, contained hourglass.
After her tribute, Maria is asked to play the part of Helen, an older lesbian who commits suicide when she is left by her young lover, Sybil. At eighteen, Maria starred as Sybil, and Maria is not keen about changing places as the less free-spirited woman. The role scares her. She is superstitious. The last “Helen” died in an accident. We know that the youth culture will still see Sybil as the brightest role. Older woman falling for scheming girl reprised may wound Maria’s spirit.
Claus,bthe director of the bleak play “Maloja Snake” has changed the play’s ending. Maria does not read the last three pages, and we surmise that there will be no suicide. We end with a fade out of Maria in London on stage looking every bit the corporate controller. She will age gracefully and powerfully.
All the cast members are good, but Binoche still shines the brightest. Chloe Grace Moretz as the new Sybil is a starlet one loves to hate. Scandalous and dismissive of everyone ,Moretz would be over the top if it were not for the tabloids
we know so well. Kristen Stewart won the Cesar Award for her assistant performance as Valentine. She plays an intelligent foil to Maria. She exits when she feels her views are discounted. She is replaced as easily as the Maloja Snake fills the gaps. A lesson for us all.
“Clouds of Sils Maria” will stay with you long after you leave the theatre. The five bars of Handel serve as the “om” that will focus your meditation on acting and on life, on what is fiction and what is truth.