Clouds of Sils Maria review

Posted 10 June 2015

Another fantastic piece from our Interactive review team: Clouds of Sils Maria by Esther Vincent

Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria is a deeply thoughtful and introspective piece. Grounded in realism, Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart help to unfold a richly textured story exploring split motivations and differing perspectives.

Following the sudden death of the playwright Wilhelm Melchior, experienced actress Maria Enders (Julliette Binoche) is cast into doubt when invited to take part in a reboot of Wilhelm’s very production that sparked her career when she was just 18 years old. Now, 20 years later, Maria struggles with her recast as the older woman, her previous role having being usurped by a young and rebellious rising star (Chloe Grace Moretz). With the companionship of her young American assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart), Maria strives to let go of the role of Sigrid, a suave and manipulative young woman who seduces the vulnerable Helena, eventually driving her to suicide.

What seems to be the most striking theme in this production is the subtle contrast and interaction of younger and older, as presented in the close relationship between Maria and Valentine. Having known, and thrived upon, only the role of Sigrid, Maria resists viewing her new role of Helena as anything other than a weak and foolish woman. It is Valentine who offers up a new perspective; that Helena is vulnerable, yes, but also human and far more likeable for being such; ‘the text is like an object – it looks different depending on where you’re standing’.

This is reflected in the contrast between Maria herself and Jo Anna, the ‘new Sigrid’. Whilst Jo Anna is caught up in the whirlwind of fame and presented as far more dislikeable, the story focusses on the day to day proceedings of Maria and Valentine in the Swiss Alps; Jo-Ann’s scandals being relayed by Valentine, highlighting just how out of touch Maria has become with contemporary youth culture. The film focusses on Maria’s vulnerabilities and yet she is seen far less cold for them – just like Helena.

Generally, the play Maloja Snake appears to be a microcosm of the unfolding characters in the main story; but for all the parallels the main focus of the play (certainly in the trailer) seems to be an older woman falling in love with her younger counterpart. It is no surprise that I went into this film expecting far more romance (or at least some hints at sexual tension) between Maria and Valentine. Instead, their relationship is more platonic – even maternal at some points. The two women care deeply for each other, and in some places this was even subverted; Valentine handles calls and organises Maria’s affairs whilst she sits in the background. Stewart’s cool and casual demeanour is well suited to this role; she gives off an air of being in control but constantly, mildly stressed. Binoche presents Maria’s strength in a different way. She beautifully contrasts Maria’s aloof glamour in a professional environment with her gentleness around Valentine; showing the strain of her situation just enough to make it believable.

Most scenes in the film depict conversations between the two women, shifting fluidly later to the relationship between Maria and Jo-Anne. These conversations show us the intricacies, similarities and differences between the three women; they drive each other’s plots along the way. It is this sharp focus that makes the film so rich, empathetic, and ultimately incredibly thought provoking.

Laura Hegarty

Audience Development CoordinatorRead more posts by Laura Hegarty

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