Clouds of Sils Maria an Epic Fail

Directed by Olivier Assayas
CG Cinema/IFC Film (USA); 124 minutes, R (language, brief nudity, tedium)
* *
This film should have been about them!
Here’s what good about this German-French-Swiss production (in English): gorgeous views of the Swiss Alps and strong performances from Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart. Here’s what’s bad: the script, the ham-handed metaphors, the (lack of) direction, any story line not involving Binoche and Stewart, and everything else about this numbingly obvious and boring film. This is a two-hour film that feels like a climb up the Matterhorn.

The setup is that glamorous actress Maria Enders (Binoche) is on her way to honor her mentor, playwright Wilhelm Melchior. Twenty years earlier Wilhelm hurtled Maria to fame by casting her in Maloja Snake, a play and film in which a teenage girl named Sigrid fell in love with an older woman named Helena (who is eventually driven to suicide). Enders is now world-famous, though she’s a scattershot whose life is, by her choice, micromanaged by her devoted personal assistant Valentine (Stewart). As the two make their way toward Zurich to honor Melchior, word comes that he has died. There is also a rumor that Melchior wrote a sequel to Maloja Snake with Binoche in mind as Sigrid at age 40—the age at which Helena committed suicide. But, as it turns out, that’s not quite the case. Maria is told there were just “notes”—though we suspect that Melchior’s widow, Rosa, actually burned the script—and a hot young director named Klaus (Lars Eidinger) plans to direct a revival of the play with Enders this time playing Helena.

Thank me now, as I’ve just made more sense of the script than the film does. What follows is Maria’s retreat to Sils Maria, Melchior’s home deep in the Alps generously donated by Rosa, who wishes to flee Wilhelm’s memory. There, Maria and Val hole up so she can have an existential crisis over aging and decide whether she wants to do the play. Sils Maria is stunning and, as we learn, the Maloja Snake is a cloud formation that slithers through an Alpine valley and entombs the region in wispy shrouds. It is one of the film’s obvious metaphors, representing the inexorable sweep of time, Maria’s clouded judgment, and Maria’s inability to see the potential for another kind of beauty when the postcard panoramas (her youthful visage) fade. Even more, she cannot see that Val is deeply in love with her. Get it? The play within the play…. Nor can she appreciate Val’s attempts to bring her up to date; Maria finds social media, tabloid sensationalism, and new concepts in how to present plays and movies to be shallow. She’s absolutely oblivious to the charms of Jo Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz), whom Klaus wishes to cast as the new Sigrid. What Val sees as freshness and intensity, Maria sees as a boorish bad girl who confuses F-bombs with complexity. (Ironically, that’s right—Moretz is only minimally competent in the film and has all the appeal of Lindsay Lohan in her train wreck phase.) Needless to say, Maria and Jo Ann will have a parting of the ways. Ooohhh—how profound! A play within a play within a play….  

If this sounds like a one-trick pony, it is. The film’s various subplots—Maria’s disdain for another actor, Jo Ann’s scandalous affair with a married man, Klaus’ attempt to articulate his “vision”—have less weight than the Sils Maria clouds. It’s hard to care about anything in this film except Maria/Val dynamic and, frankly, this film would have been much better as a lesbian love story rather than what it is: a series of rambles across the Alps that always end just short of the hike’s stated destination. I suppose it’s also intended to make us muse upon culture and the gap between sheen and substance, but by attempting to make that point through nothing but gauzy surfaces, Clouds of Sils Maria manages to fail on still another level. –Rob Weir


Anonymous said...

"and has all the appeal of Lindsay Lohan in her train wreck phase."

What? That's what the character is supposed to come off as.

Anonymous said...

I agree Jo Ann was supposed to be a train wreck on a personal level, Anonymous. They key word in the sentence is "appeal." Did you find Lohan to have "appeal" when she was acting out? I did not. We're also supposed to believe that Jo Ann is an amazing
actress but, like Lohan in her depths, she was merely tabloid fodder--hardly the sort of person (in the script's logic) that should appeal to Val.