Ok shoot me. I had no idea what “Clouds of Sils Maria” was going in. None. I knew Kristen Stewart was in it and Juliette Binoche. Binoche good, Stewart bad… oh alright, we’ll call it even on a slow entertainment night and give it a try. What happened next? I was agog for the entirety of its 124 minute running time. Literally. Mouth open. Eyes wide. ‘What am I watching here’ sort of amazement. If you walked into Birdman cold you know what I’m talking about here. That sort of a visceral, what is happening, response of seeing Keaton sort of playing himself, but not? Yeah… that is actually what happens in Sils Maria. But instead of at a level of 8 on the “What The HECK is Going On Here” scale, its actually more like a break the dial 27 instead.
So let me start over and tell you what this movie actually is, so that you have some semblance of a clue going into it. At least just enough of a walk through to contextualize where you stand. We will get to the spoiler bits in a bit – and those will be very very clearly demarcated. Good.
Clouds of Sils Maria Overview
“Clouds of Sils Maria” centers on the struggles of an aging actress named Maria Enders (Binoche) and her personal assistant Valentine (Stewart). Maria is asked to redo a play that made her famous at the age of 18… but with a twist. The play involved two women, a younger woman and an older woman that basically end up playing a game of cat and mouse emotionally. The older woman falls in love with the younger woman, the younger woman toys with the older woman, and ultimately (apparently) the older woman commits suicide. This time though – 20 years on – Maria has been asked to play the role of the older woman, not the younger woman.
So for a lot of the movie we are seeing her discuss her original participation in this experience that made her famous and the impacts that this had on her life. And we also see her trying to decide whether she will in reprise her participation in the play at all. She is conflicted as she considers playing the less powerful, less impactful character… at least from her current perspective. And all the while, her ever present assistant Valentine is there, commenting, prodding, encouraging, directing Maria. The plot is a bit of a quiet, slow, development of the constant unfolding of an enormous misdirection con. The audience is bracing itself perpetually to interact with Maria and this new young up and coming starlet, Chloë Grace Moretz (Joe-Ann Ellis), when in fact we’ve been watching the dance all along and it has been between Maria and Valentine.
Pardon the reduction, but Sils Maria is a movie that is making a play with the sort of quality to it that is similar in form to say, the Moulin Rouge. Which is a movie about a guy writing a play about a guy writing a play about the girl he wants to marry. Sils Maria has this sort of collapsing kaleidoscope effect to it that sort of is unsettling and yet natural at the same time. At many times throughout the movie as Maria and Val rehearse the lines of that play are saying exactly what their ‘real’ counterparts would be saying. So much so that you have to listen to the names use to refer to themselves to determine whether they are still rehearsing or if they have left the script and began speaking honestly finally.
For example, current, real stars are referenced. Famous people and their very real movies are referenced. Fictional movies that sound awfully like the Twilight series are referenced replete with werewolves, et al. If I hadn’t known any better I would have guessed the movie was more a documentary, or at the very least a docudrama about real life as opposed to the completely fictionalized writings of Olivier Assayas.
Now For the Sils Maria Explanation and Walkthrough
Before I delve on the movie explanation and walkthrough I think it is important that we eject all readers that have not seen the movie yet. If you are reading this, I promise you you will like the movie. So go watch it and then return to discuss the more intricate details of how the movie works. Ok? Good.
A Quick Overview of the Movie Events
As the movie opens, Maria and Val are on a train heading to an awards ceremony on behalf of Wilhelm Melchior. Wilhelm was the writer and director of Maloja Snake that pole-vaulted Maria to stardom. The role Maria played, as an 18 year old upstart, was that of the ever manipulative Sigrid, who toys with her 20 year older counterpart, Helena, who is obviously falling for her younger counterpart. While still en route to the award ceremony Val and Maria learn that Wilhelm has passed away which has a significant impact on the proceedings and even whether Maria wants to even be involved. She decides to stay and receive the award but not before finding out that Wilhelm had been sick and that he had committed suicide.
Just before receiving the award Valentine sets up a meeting with Lars Eidinger who is an up and coming director who wants to do a reboot of Wilhelm’s original play, Maloja Snake, that had made Maria famous. But in Lars’ version he wants to cast Maria not again as Sigrid, but this time as the older Helena. This becomes one of the more interesting conversation points the movie brings to the table with regard to age and just how relevant older stars are throughout the industry. Eventually Valentine convinces Maria that playing Helena would be a great way to show that older actresses and characters can still be powerful and innocent simultaneously. Maria consents to the role and off to Sils-Maria within Swiss Alps the pair go, to begin practicing for the part. It was there that Maria becomes completely unsettled by the death of her mentor, and with her own fragility, and begins to grapple with her past while also struggle with the immediacy of her impending future.
And with that in mind, it is throughout this section of rehearsals in the Alps that the single most meta section of the movie begins. If meta-self-referentialism isn’t your shtick then I’m sure you are here to lambast the movie and not to understand it more fully, because the meta-game here is pretty intense. It is here that Assayas has completely built up a play in and about his work with Juliette Binoche. The writer/director’s first release that he filmed was debuted at Cannes and was entitled “Rendezvous”… and it made Juliette a star. Mr. Assayas signed on to a reunion, which he “had no idea what the film would be,” he said, “but I knew I could do something with Juliette in relationship to our common history.” The history of their movie-making relationship is what is obviously mined through out Sils Maria.
As the rehearsals become more and more intense, and we begin to see Valentine slowly begin to opine honestly, we see the roles of Helena and Sigrid stripped away and we start to see the true feelings of Maria and Valentine. Valentine chafes at Maria’s snobbery towards her and begins to resent her boss and the lack of consideration. Maria doesn’t understand why Valentine would enjoy pop-culture movies and their lack of insightfulness. And ultimate we see a lack of willingness to change on Maria’s behalf that ultimately propels this relationship to its conclusion.
Clouds of Sils Maria Conclusion Explained
Valentine, throughout the movie, is very interested in seeing this phenomenon of the snake. The Maloja Snake is the colloquial name for a very unusual cloud formation in that area that occurs is a series of low clouds that form low to the earth because of an overhanging high pressure that forces the clouds into the valley of the mountains. It is an amazing meteorological experience and Valentine is bound and determined to do absolutely everything in her power to see it. Maria on the other hand isn’t impressed by the fact that she is being expected to get up early to hike just to see a bunch of clouds. Then one morning the concierge lets Valentine know that conditions were perfect to see the snake the next morning early.
As the two are on their way Maria expresses concern that they are lost and that she was frustrated. This obviously irritates Valentine to no end as she is perfectly aware of where they are and where they are going. She even attempts to show Maria on the map, “See we just came around this bend, and we are about to round this bend here and see the snake.” But Maria will have none of it, and charges off on the trail ahead of Valentine. Val follows until the bend and then she disappears into a crest as we see Maria trudging defiantly on towards the view of the snake.
When Maria arrives at a good destination spot to watch from, she sits on a trail and waits for the snake and for Valentine to join her, as she always has before.
But Valentine never comes. Maria begins to scream for her, but Val never responds and we never see her again. The clouds form and coalesce into a slithering form and it ducks and weaves throughout the mountains, but Maria and Val never see it, and they never see each other again.
The Trouble With The Ending of Sils Maria
In the script we are told that Sigrid spurns Helena on to commit suicide by heading into the mountains and is never seen again. Wilhelm too heads out into the mountains to commit suicide. So the question that faces us today is, did Valentine leave Maria behind to commit suicide in the mountains… maybe even while watching the snake form and dance amongst the mountains? The ending is ambiguous. All that we know is that Valentine is infuriated by Maria and she stomps off into the mountains.
My personal view is pretty clear… Valentine chooses this moment to abandon a woman that had been brutal and demanding of her from the very beginning. Valentine had put up with the condescension with great aplomb. Occasionally she began to mention Maria’s overbearing nature. But it was ultimately Maria’s disregard for modern entertainment in the form of Jo-Ann Ellis’ space movie that really drove Valentine to the brink.
Which is fascinating really. Here we have, Kristen Stewart, the queen of teen pop entertainment defending the mob of tweens that rabidly consume this “mindless fare” that Maria is railing against. Valentine gives Jo-Ann’s acting accolades because she is so accessible and vulnerable. Maria even takes umbrage at this, because she believes that Val is implying that her acting isn’t accessible, that it is stuffy and academic. Which, if there is one critique of Binoche’s acting it would be exactly that. And if there is any critique of Kristen’s acting it would be that she is too lazy in her acting.
Assayas even comments on this overlapping of reality with fiction: “Even in the shift of perspective, because obviously Kristen is playing a character who is commenting on Kristen Stewart, but it’s a movie where you never lose consciousness of who the actresses are, and in the end that’s a very important element of the film. But that’s something I only realized gradually.” And so with that, I think its clear that there is no way on earth that Valentine commits suicide in the Alps. I even watched very closely in the crowd shots to see if I could see Valentine one last time, knowing full well that she had to be alive.
The movie flips the script upside down and instead of having Helena leave, we have Valentine disappear. Which also comments on the actual reality of what happened to Helena as well. She had to have not committed suicide either. Valentine even opens our eyes to this possibility when she tells Maria as she is rehearsing Helena’s role that she didn’t read the script to believe that Helena committed suicide, she says that the script is ambiguous on this point and that she just goes into the mountains and disappears. So too does Valentine head off into the mountains and disappear for good.
What about the Epilogue?
Where Sils Maria runs completely off the rails is the epilogue. The movie had a beautiful ending at the end. To tack on a very Hollywood-style ending (I mean that in the worst possible way) in the form of an epilogue is about as cheesy as it comes. But I’m sure some people would want to have the clarity and resolution of what the epilogue provided. “And what clarity exactly did it provide Taylor?” Thanks for asking…
Basically the only purpose of the epilogue is to show how Maria was affected by Valentine – and that she meant something to her. How do I know that? Simple enough, throughout the entirety of the epilogue we are given example, after example, of how she had adopted Valentine’s way of thinking. She was considering a space movie – “Is it on earth?” She was accommodating and understanding with the plight of her new assistant in this daunting role. Maria asked for opinions of others and was generally transformed from beginning to end. Assayas assuredly attached on the epilogue to soften the blow to Binoche directly, it is, after all, a story about his relationship with her ultimately. We can’t leave Binoche in the dog house, seeing as though she was the tent stake actress to carry this movie… that is until Kristen Stewart showed up and blew everyone else off the screen.
Kristen Stewart became the first American actress to win a Cesar at France’s most prominent film awards show on Friday (February, 2015). Stewart won best supporting actress for her co-starring role in “Cloud of Sils Maria,” directed by Olivier Assayas and also starring Juliette Binoche and Chloe Grace Moretz.
She definitely deserved it. I was transfixed throughout. And I was actually completely disengaged when Kristen made her departure before the epilogue. Binoche was good. But Stewart was literally brilliant. And there is word on the street that Kristen will be doing another French film soon… which I cry bravo. Kudos to you Kristen for finding your stride.
Edited by, CY