Clouds of Sils Maria is a reflection on youth and aging with outstanding performances from Juliette Binoche as actress Maria Enders and Kristen Stewart as her personal assistant Val.
The majority of the film is interactions between Maria and Val as they prepare Maria to be in a play. This was the best part of the film – the chemistry between Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart was so open and expansive. There is more to the story than that relationship, but for me that relationship was the film. Late in the film a young actress Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz) with a reputation as a wild child shows up to act with Maria in the play.
Jo-Ann is anything but the wild child of her public persona. She’s a seriously ambitious actress eager to shine in the play, called “Maloja Snake.” Maria’s career was launched when she starred in “Maloja Snake” as the young woman Jo-Ann will play. Now, 20 years later, Maria will play the older woman in the play. She doesn’t like being cast as the older woman, doesn’t like the character’s weakness because she apparently commits suicide over the loss of the younger woman.
Subtext hints at sexual tension between Maria and Val reflect the sexual relationship between the two women in “Maloja Snake.” While this adds to the layered nature of the film, it was not developed seriously.
Time out for a definition. Maloja snake is a cloud formation that creeps through a mountain pass near Sils Maria in Switzerland. The cloud formation looks like a snake. The author of the play lived in Sils Maria. Hence, Clouds of Sils Maria.
The play’s author died as the film began, and his widow let Maria and Val live in their chalet as they rehearsed for the revival of the play. Both the title of the play and the title of the film refer to a beautiful moment of ephemera as fleeting as water vapor.
The layered nature of the film explores the ephemeral blessings of youth as Maria faces her own aging, as Val challenges her interpretation of life and of her character, and as Jo-Ann pushes Maria into the invisibility of age in the revival of the play.
The idea that turning 40 is a curse and the end of usefulness for an actress is both true in Hollywood and utterly wrong. Juliette Binoche is a perfect example of everything that’s wrong with that idea. She’s as beautiful, talented, and vital as she was 10 years ago or 20 years ago. That talent and beauty will still be there when she’s 60 or 70 or any other age.
Brilliantly talented young actresses like Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz are aging every day, just like all of us who are living. When they hit 40 will they no longer be relevant? Does all that talent just evaporate like water vapor after a woman hits the big 4-0?
The final scene in the film, Maria on a stage waiting for the curtain to open, mirrors all the things wrong with Hollywood’s obsession with youth. It’s a sad and depressing closing to a film that suggests managing to stay alive day after day as a curse visited only on women.