The Maloja Snake that infuses Assayas’ Cannes 2014 hit has multidimensional reverberations illuminating how eloquently constructed a film this is. It is on a literal sense two things – the title of the play central to the narrative, which middle-aged veteran actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) launched her career from and is convinced to revisit decades later; and the formation of clouds in the Swiss municipality of Sils Maria where, at a specific time, they float and slither around the mountains as if like a snake and then vanish in an instant. The fictionalized play uses its title to be symbolic of the fleeting nature of affairs and how we cherish them as they occur, but Assayas broadens this in marvelous meta manner to represent both Enders’ and Binoche’s acting career. They swept in with a ferocious wave of success and embarked on an acclaimed journey, yet there is always a lingering fear for actors about the fragility of their stature and acceptance within the industry; it can vanish in an instant, and Enders’ struggles to overcome her fear of evolving as an actress and a human dramatise this with gripping and insightful achievements.
Enders so strongly associates with and relates to this character of Sigrid, the 18 year old temptress who begins an affair with her middle aged boss Helena and eventually drives her to suicide, played in the revival by young celebrity hell raiser Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Mortez). Her trouble channeling into the methodology of the middle aged Helena and conceiving someone else playing the role of Sigrid differently to her demonstrates a professional not only with fears of growing older, settling for less exciting or convincing roles and been usurped in the industry, but additionally a person who’s struggling to accept the changing perceptions of her in society. “I’m Sigrid, and I want to stay Sigrid” Enders defiantly claims, who feels defined by her break out role as an actress and an individual. No longer thought of as the seducer but now the one who is easily deluded into emotional exploitation, Enders the actress shifts into the powerless role and Enders the individual feels equally powerless in guiding her career.
The relationship between Sigrid and Helena offers fascinating parallels to that of Enders and her young PA Valentine (Kristin Stewart), whose intimacy and seclusion for much of the film is heightened by ambiguous flirtation from Assayas around what is fantasy, reality and performance. Often times scenes will begin in the middle of dialogue action between Enders and Valentine and initially you’re never sure whether it is genuine conversation or if they’re simply rehearsing lines from the play. This has drawn notable comparisons to Abbas Kiarostami‘s remarkable 2010 film, Certified Copy, which Binoche also starred in. Further similarities come from All About Eve, Vertigo, Mulholland Drive, Enemy and the work of Ingmar Bergman, particularly Persona and After the Rehearsal in its commentary on the acting sector, age and how we perform for others. While Bergman used meta in his his films to atone for his past actions, here Binoche’s character acts almost as a conduit to explore issues relating to her own real life career and Valentine’s comments on pop franchise cinema offer striking similarities to Stewart’s claim to fame of helpming the Twilight series of films.
While it’s perhaps been overshadowed by a host of well documented influences, Clouds of Sils Maria boasts a command of its correlated characteristics which feels organic rather than duplicated. Luscious cinematography of the mountainous terrain, playful psychosexual drama and complex writing facilitate three actresses to produce three strong performances. Stewart, unquestionably her standout work to date, shines in a role that allows her to do so, winning a César with a tone that is measured, calculated and intelligent; all punctuated by the same attributes of Asayass’ impressive filmmaking here.
For more of my in-depth analysis and thoughts on Clouds of Sils Maria, listen to episode 5 of the Project Projection podcast