Clouds of Sils Maria is in essence, a film about time and perception. Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is a celebrated actress at the peak of her career who is asked to perform in a remake of the play that made her famous. Originally she played the role of Sigrid, a fascinating and seductive young woman who disarms and eventually drives her boss Helena to suicide. Twenty years later, a hot young director wants Maria to take on the other role, that of the much older and haunted Helena. She and her assistant (Kristen Stewart) go to Sils Maria, (a remote region of the Alps) to rehearse at the home of the play’s writer, Wilhelm Melchior, who drew inspiration from the real Maloja Snake, a cloud formation that snakes through the alps like a serpent.
A young, scandalous Hollywood starlet (Chloë Grace Moretz) is to take on the role of Sigrid, and Maria suddenly finds herself Alice in Wonderland, on the other side of the looking glass, face to face with an unnerving reflection of herself.
There are several themes here, namely ageing, disappearance, suicide, dependence, desire, love and they are all approached in a new way. The film has a very theatrical feel to it – as if it should be a play itself instead of a film about a play, and there is a sense that the entire film could be interpreted differently with the volume turned down.
This is a film of metaphors and extremes. Present versus past, art versus life, youth versus maturity. All the while, the Maloja Snake creeps in through the mountains like the seeds of self-doubt, providing a strong and often breathtaking backdrop to this drama. Time and its significance are questioned. How people see and interpret the very world is questioned. The relationship between Sigrid and Helena strongly reflects the relationship between Valentine and Maria, although neither of them can see eye-to-eye on the true essence and meaning of the original text. This creates a delightful tension between the two, who clearly have a strong love for one another, though neither can openly admit it.
It is the subtleties that make this film interesting, with the scenes between Binoche and Stewart providing the best entertainment throughout. It’s easy to see why Stewart won the Cesar for her role in this film: her blunt, honest performance of personal assistant, Valentine, is so on point that one forgets she is acting at all as they savagely devour every morsel of truth she flicks at them. Binoche is effortless as always in her portrayal of Maria, a woman at the height of her career but whose inner demons threaten to consume her.
It’s very real and the performances are convincing and raw. There is a sense that there is a lot more to learn here. The film constantly pushes its audience to look closer. But the film is too long and a little self-indulgent at times, which does make it difficult to stay engaged throughout.