“What’s wrong with my acting? What do I need to do to make you admire me?” So asks gray-faced, slightly tipsy actress Maria Enders during a tense conversation with her assistant Valentine.
While the above scene takes place inside a mountainside home, not the picturesque Swiss landscape, and the dialogue may not seem the most poetic, its desperation and loneliness are at the heart of Olivier Assayas’s film “Clouds of Sils Maria.”
Played by Juliette Binoche, Maria Enders is an accomplished actress who got her start in the play “Maloja Snake.” The play details a tumultuous relationship between a young girl named Sigrid and her boss Helena, with Sigrid eventually driving the older woman to suicide. Twenty years later, Enders is invited to star in a remake, but this time to play Helena—a role which embodies everything Enders detests in herself.
Tabloid princess Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz)—a reckless starlet reminiscent of Justin Bieber—is slated to fill Enders’ old role. Before the two even meet, Enders develops a fascination and contempt for Ellis, watching online videos of her drunkenly slamming her purse against a paparazzi's windshield. Her face illuminated by the bluish glow of her iPad screen, Binoche looks like a woman defeated, foreshadowing the storm of her discontent that is later to come.
Even when the director takes full advantage of the gorgeous expanse of rolling mountains, the outdoor parts of the film are unified with the indoor parts by an overhanging sense of gloom. Visually conveyed through the film’s blue-heavy color palette and liberal usage of shadows, Assayas sets a quiet, melancholy tone. Coupled with the numerous solo shots of Binoche, the viewer is forced to confront Enders’ outbursts of sadness and jealousy—and, by extension, their own anxieties about loneliness.
Kristen Stewart delivers the standout performance in the film as Valentine. The significant age gap between herself and Enders makes their exchanges more meaningful, as Valentine often makes the case for why younger stars and directors should be taken seriously. In one scene, after having watched a futuristic space film starring Ellis, Valentine ardently defends Ellis’ capabilities and the sci-fi genre as a whole. Enders’ blank look when Valentine argues that “there’s no less truth than in a supposedly more serious film” reinforces the generational divide between them and calls into question the shifting definition of art.
The divide between Enders and Ellis seems to be mainly generational. The idea of an out-of-touch aging woman worrying about clinging to her youth may sound clichéd—even unfairly stereotypical—but Enders is so earnest in her emotions that it’s hard not to sympathize with her. At one point, Ellis snips that no one cares about Helena when Enders asks her to focus on Helena’s character during the play, leaving the audience taken aback by Ellis’ brashness. One only has to look at Enders’ sunken cheekbones—her slight smile—to put themselves in her position.
Though the direct parallel between Enders’ dislike of modern movies and her worries about fading into obscurity is a bit heavy-handed—indeed, built into the plot—there’s something to be said for a film that makes its message so hard to miss. When Enders asks Valentine what she should do to become a better actress, she invites not only pity, but also empathy. Enders invokes the familiar wish of every desperate person to put social conventions aside and be simply told what to do, because they no longer have it in them to grope blindly and fail.
The visual appeal and the simplicity of the dialogue may not linger with viewers long after they’ve finished the film, but the message carries enough potential staying power to stick around. Even if the staying power is short-lived, the mark of a good piece of art is being able to emotionally connect with the viewer—for however long that may be.
“Clouds of Sils Maria” is currently showing in select theaters.
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