Thursday 9 April 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria

If a film based on a William Gibson novel is ever made (disregarding the existence of Johnny Mnemonic), Olivier Assayas would be an excellent choice for director. In his past efforts, he has always shown an interest in how people cross national borders, and how that movement affects identity. His protagonists could not be any more diverse in their professions and passions, but the one thing that unites them – actors, criminals, political terrorists, musicians – is how they move through countries, making use of porous borders or circumventing the limits of mobility. In a way, his stories are all an ironic take on the idea of the cosmopolitan, since some of his characters – like Carlos the Jackal, and Asia Argento’s captivating main character in Boarding Gate – are cosmopolitan precisely because their existence on the fringes of legality makes it a necessity to move effortlessly through and across nation states. Assayas looks closely at how common goals and conflicts are communicated by people who always bring their own baggage to the table but are at the same time perfectly able to speak more than one language, who don’t seem to be tied down by one national identity. It is almost as if, between all of his characters, a shared identity or a shared personality trait emerges, regardless of whether they are artists crossing borders in pursuit of their art, criminals doing their business, terrorists operating globally or political activists. This cosmopolitan class is more defined by how effortlessly it navigates than by the reasons why it does so. 
In Clouds of Sils Maria, the border-crossing nature of Assayas narrative extends to time. Where Carlos was a conventional biography of the killer, telling the story of his life in chronological order, Clouds of Sils Maria is rooted in two eras: the past, which is regularly brought up in memories and conversations, and the present. The connection is a work of art, the play Maloja Snake (reminiscent of Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant), about Sigrid, a young woman, seducing her older boss Helena and destroying her life. The play begun Maria Enders’ (Juliette Binoche) career, but she is now asked to return to the stage not as Sigrid, but as Helena. Naturally, Maria is very hesitant to accept the request – it forces her to confront her own age, and having played Sigrid back in the day against an actress that she considered old-fashioned - it is implied that her own performance saved the original version, who met a tragic end shortly after - adds an additional layer of conflict. She is unsure whether she was asked to play the role for the sake of sensationalism – an aged actress, now forced to play the tempted rather than the temptress – or because of her fame and talent. Maria despises the weakness of that character, but is now forced to confront the question of whether age has inevitably turned her into her. The film is delightful in that the first half of it is a constant conversation and interpretation of the play, of the characters in it, and how their paths apply to the real life of Maria. Are Helena and Sigrid permanently opposed characters, essentially different, or is Helena an older version of Sigrid, much like Maria is now an older version of herself? Is it inevitable for Maria to play Helena since she once played Sigrid, and the two are eternally entwined? Once Maria agrees to perform, another question arises: who will play young Sigrid? It opens the film to a discussion of the Hollywood star system, a world that Maria regards with a cynical aloofness and distance, constantly being kept up to date by her assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), pretending to be unfazed by it but secretly obsessing over the implications of her being left out of it. It is an odd but captivating mixture of jealousy and intellectual criticism of that system. Maria takes apart how ridiculous both the films and the way the machine works are, but she is still worried what the fact that the machine is not interested in her anymore says about her life, her career, her age. To an extent, Stewart’s Valentine represents that system (on the meta level, Kristen Stewart represents both sides of it – Valentine’s fascination and Stewart’s own constant war against it) – she knows how to navigate the news sites, she knows the gossip and that even the most overproduced Hollywood film can be open to intellectual discussion and interpretation, while Mara is so blinded by the surface, the production, that she denies that it can have any value beyond that or is worthy of being taken seriously. 
Valentine performs several roles in Maria’s life. Once the older actress accepts the role, they spend weeks in a remote house in Switzerland, practising the text, Valentine taking the role of Sigrid and excelling at it. The lines between rehearsal and life blur – just as Maria is questioning herself whether she is becoming Helena, a character she has no respect for (or even worse, for the actress who played her when she was young), Valentine shares aspects of Sigrid, or at the very least she is put into a position where she is forced to become a version of her. Her performance in the role seems effortless and very effectual in drawing emotions from Maria/Helena. Valentine is Maria’s connection to the world outside, as she manages the flow of gossip and rumours and explains how things work. She knows the young actress who is eventually cast as Sigrid, and provides an interpretation along with the facts, to make the scandals and rumours seem more profound. 
The film gains intensity as Maria and Valentine are basically stuck together, playing off each other both as Maria and Valentine and as Helena and Sigrid, occasionally threatening to drown each other. Maria’s needs extend beyond what Valentine is able to give, and to escape, she perhaps invents a social life that she does not actually have. It is hinted that she, in exhaustion, drives away to exhale by the side of a mountain road rather than meet people, to find some respite from Maria. It’s stunning to watch how these two draw each other out, question each other, dance around each other. It is an ongoing flirtation, unconsumed, a complex relationship. Maria wants confirmation but she also admires Valentine’s talent, both in acting across her and in understanding the world. She relies on her. She thrives on Valentine’s attention and adoration, and acts like a jealous lover when she fears that she is losing either. Valentine is attentive and considerate, and does admire the older woman, but ultimately unable to be whatever Maria needs her to be – a confirmation that she is still more Sigrid than Helena, that she still has a place in the star system that constantly looms in the background, updated on digital devices. Eventually, Valentine disappears, and the real new Sigrid – Jo-Ann (Chloë Grace Moretz) appears and replaces. 
The actresses in the film cross borders, and the industry they work in is international – rehearsals take place in Switzerland, the eventual play will be performed in London, Jo-Ann is from Hollywood, a director wunderkind is German – but what permeates borders more than anything is the gossip and rumours that follow Jo-Ann around. She is truly a cosmopolitan star, presumably raised within a system that Maria only understands from the outside, so perfectly geared to its machinations that any question of authenticity becomes irrelevant. She knows how to play the press, she is used to her personal dramas having a global dimension and being reflected in the global media, to the extent that they almost become indistinguishable from fiction. Maria’s idea of the world is constricted, and she is not cut out to meet her counterpart on eye-level: in the end, when they debate their performance in the play, Jo-Ann reveals her true colours, and her knowledge of how stardom works. Maria fails because she cannot adapt quickly enough, and her guide is gone. 
Clouds of Sils Maria is playful on all levels. It is conscious of the fact that it isn’t just a play within a play, but also gains an additional level of meaning through who Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart (so captivating in this role that she seems under-utilized in most of her previous performances) and Chloë Moretz are. The film is self-referential, and works on that level, but thrives because it lacks the cynicism that permeates Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars. Assayas allows his characters to debate identity, aging, performance, narratives – and the result is absolutely stunning. 

2014, directed by Olivier Assayas, starring Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz, Klaus Diesterweg, Christopher Giles, Angela Winkler, Hanns Zischler, Brady Corbet.

No comments: