UNDER CERTAIN meteorological conditions, the Engadine Valley of southern Switzerland is overtaken by long banks of clouds that glide for miles, like a colossal albino boa constrictor. This cloud formation, nicknamed the “Maloja snake,” provides the title of a play by Wilhelm Melchior, an eccentric dramatist who lives near the Maloja Pass in the secluded alpine village of Sils Maria. Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is an acclaimed actress preparing to revisit Maloja Snake, the production that launched her career two decades earlier. This time she will play Helena, an established businesswoman whose life unravels when she begins an affair with Sigrid, a woman twenty years her junior — the role Maria originated.
Clouds of Sils Maria, the beguiling new film from director Olivier Assayas, pivots on these complex transpositions. At once a play within a film, and a film about acting, most of the story unfolds at Wilhelm’s secluded cottage in Sils Maria, where Maria and her personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), retreat to rehearse Maloja Snake. Critics have described Clouds of Sils Maria as a meditation on the passage of time. The brash potential Maria felt when she played Sigrid at 18 is now eclipsed by the pathetic self-destruction she sees in Helena. When she briefly considers pulling out of the performance, Maria explains angrily that she doesn’t feel good in Helena’s skin. She adds, with a tinge of desperation: “I’m still Sigrid!”
Youth and age are indeed frequent topics of conversation within the film, which Binoche instigated when she suggested that Assayas write a script that contends with the experience of an aging actress. But the question of identity is not so much presented as a function of change over time. Instead, the subject — who one is, and what one wants and means — is parsed through the rhetoric of female proximity and distance.
In the film’s opening scenes, Maria and Valentine pace back and forth through the jolting cars and labyrinthine halls of a train as they travel to Zurich to accept a prize on Wilhelm’s behalf. The camera focuses on the women’s faces, almost entirely omitting glimpses of the alpine landscape streaming past. But if the viewer is unable to locate the scene within the surrounding environment, she is privy instead to digital screens as windows onto the world.
Maria and Valentine scroll through, fumble with, and pass back and forth countless iPhones, BlackBerries, and iPads as they negotiate upcoming professional commitments and coordinate Maria’s impending divorce. This frenetic virtual connectivity elicits a sense of jangled claustrophobia, which is stilled only by the news of Wilhelm’s sudden death. Even then, Maria and Valentine turn to the internet in order to process what has happened. Valentine reads aloud comments posted on the press release announcing Wilhelm’s death, from anonymous responders who did not know Wilhelm but still impose some connection vis-à-vis the virtual interface. Projected virtual identities — how they are perceived, and the distance (if any) between the image of the person and the person himself — are equally as present in the film as their “actual” counterparts.
Long before she appears in person, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), the impetuous starlet who will play Sigrid in the new production, enters the film in the form of viral paparazzi footage and contrived press junket interviews. Klaus (Lars Eidinger), the director, assures Maria that Jo-Ann is more interesting than her online presence makes her appear. When Maria finally meets her at the Waldhaus hotel in Sils, it becomes clear that Jo-Ann spins the rabid media coverage to craft her inflated public persona, a shield for her private self. Yet at the end of the film, when she and Maria disagree about how she should play a scene, she reveals a kind of ruthless directness: “It’s pretty clear to me that this woman’s all washed up,” she retorts with a strained smile. “I mean, your character. Not you.” Jo-Ann’s assessment seems devoid of the fiery petulance she projects in the media, or the articulate sensitivity she displayed at the Waldhaus. More than anything, she sounds like Sigrid. The dramaturgical counterparts of the characters, as well as their virtual avatars, come in and out of focus by turns.
This rhetoric of proximity is often invoked to explain these shifts in character, as when Valentine explains that she admires Jo-Ann’s acting because there is “no distance” between the actor and her characters’ ambiguities. Maria similarly invokes her intimacy with her characters to defend her interpretations of the play as privileged. She chastises Valentine by telling her that thinking about a text is different from living it. Her observation is reminiscent of Francesco Casetti’s claim that postwar cinema demands entrenchment and identification from its viewer. The viewer can no longer sustain the privileged perspective of interpretive mastery from a vantage point outside the film. Instead, according to Casetti, a film “has to be penetrated in order to be interpreted.”
Clouds of Sils Maria both invites and resists the encounter described by Casetti’s rather phallic metaphor. The viewer is consistently reminded that she is watching a constructed narrative vis-à-vis imported dramaturgical devices: intertitles delineate Part 1, Part 2, and Epilogue, and every scene ends with a fade to black. But the film also enmeshes the viewer within the narrative by accentuating the blurred boundaries between reality and fiction. The register of language shifts abruptly between vernacular and literary throughout the film. Scenes of Maria and Valentine rehearsing often begin in medias res, so it takes a moment to discern whether they are conversing or running lines. Slippages back and forth between the concrete and the abstract occur even within the characters’ real conversations, as when Jo-Ann first meets Maria and gushes girlishly about how much she admires the older star, but then, in the next breath, she coolly assesses: “It’s incredibly brave of you to take on the role of Helena. It’s a way of dealing with time.” Assayas varies the temporal speed of the film to insert the viewer in the lived rhythms of the filmic world, which at the same time performs its own constructed nature. This divergence between acceleration and slow unfolding is executed most explicitly by the frenzied cadences of Part 1 and the Epilogue, which bracket the slow-burning intensity between Maria and Valentine that dominates the central portion of the film.
The trope of an ambitious upstart unsettling an aging diva has provided psychological intensity in other films. Think of how Natalie Portman’s troubled ballerina in Black Swan threatens to unseat her celebrated predecessor (Winona Ryder). Or the more violent insubordination on display in Love Crime, in which Kristin Scott Thomas’s domineering executive has the tables turned on her by a cunning employee (Ludivine Sagnier). Helena and Sigrid’s relationship in Maloja Snake is charged with a similar brutality, although it is refracted through multiple female relationships.
The continuous shifting of the film’s linguistic register reminds the viewer that she is always watching not just Helena and Sigrid, but Maria-as-Helena and Valentine-as-Sigrid. Moreover, the film presents only extracts of the staged dialogue. The viewer’s impressions of Helena and Sigrid are instead formulated largely through differing interpretations stated by other characters in the film: Maria still relates to Sigrid, and is disgusted by what she views as the inexcusable weakness of Helena’s blind desire, whereas Valentine defends the poignant humanity of Helena’s fallibility. A lecherous former costar suggests that Helena is fascinated by her own downfall; Jo-Ann sees only Helena’s incontrovertible obsolescence; and Klaus argues that the two women are attracted to each other because they share “the same wound” of deep-seated violence, and are, in the end, one and the same person.
The relationship between the two women, which Maria and Valentine agree is “disturbing,” seems mainly to hinge on Helena’s blindness to Sigrid’s manipulation. Yet Sigrid, as voiced by Valentine during rehearsals with Maria, articulates her intentions with disturbing candor: “I don’t think it’s company figures keeping you up at night.” “Then what is?” Helena asks. “Desire,” Sigrid rejoins confidently. “For me, I think. I noticed it as soon as we met. And I’m sorry, but I’ve had fun playing with it.” The viewer discerns early in the film that Valentine, too, can read Maria well enough to manipulate her. It is Valentine who quietly maneuvers her into meeting with Klaus about the possibility of restaging Maloja Snake, which sets in motion the rest of the film.
There is also an unmistakable, albeit unspoken, erotic tension between Maria and Valentine, which parallels the charge between Helena and Sigrid. They move in and around Wilhelm’s cottage and the surrounding mountains like planets orbiting each other. Early on in their time at Sils, Maria and Valentine are running lines while out hiking and pause to take a swim. As they chat lightly about Valentine’s plan to visit the man she is seeing, suddenly Maria’s voice stiffens. Valentine calls her out: “I think you’re jealous. Of my time, of my attention. Possibly of my affection.” Valentine here enacts with Maria what she describes Sigrid as doing with Helena — she speaks her desire.
Valentine advocates a different reading of the play from that of Maria, one that acknowledges the humanity as well as the cruelty of both Helena and Sigrid. She contests Maria’s efforts to dismiss the text as phony, too abstract, or a male fantasy, and instead suggests that theater is an interpretation of life, and, as such, can be truer than life itself. She emerges as the consummate reader, serving as a kind of proxy for the viewer.
But as her and Maria’s interpretations of the play diverge with increasing intensity, causing friction between them, Valentine proposes several times that she should leave. “You have your interpretation of the play. I have mine,” she says, following an argument about whether Helena and Sigrid are merely playing out a male fantasy as Maria claims. “I think it’s just confusing you. It’s frustrating me. It’s not good.” Yet her estimation is not offered with the matter-of-fact detachment that inflects Sigrid’s. It is Valentine, not Maria, who grows increasingly edgy, distraught, and self-doubting.
In what seems to be the climax of the film, Maria and Valentine hike out into the valley to observe the Maloja snake. The two women vanish from view into a crag in the mountainside, and the camera lingers on the knoll, waiting for them to emerge again into view. When this same shot is employed near the beginning of the film, we are rewarded: Maria and Rosa, Wilhelm’s wife, reenter the shot and stride to the grassy mountainside overlooking the Maloja Pass. This second time, Maria emerges and sinks to the ground, pointing and exclaiming — with a kind of desperation that borders on euphoria — “Is that the snake? No, no, it’s not. Oh wait, yes, it is. It’s turning into the snake!”
But Valentine never reappears. She receives no further mention in the final half-hour of the film. Such unsettling ambiguity recalls Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, and Susan Sontag’s illuminating review of that film, published in 1967, could just as easily describe Clouds of Sils Maria. The film’s discordant internal relations, she argues, “are only transposed intact when the whole film is relocated in the mind.” That is not to say that the film is wholly subjective, but rather that its vertiginous refraction thwarts all attempts to construct what Sontag calls a “single, plausible anecdote.” Just before she disappears, Valentine tells Maria, “the play is like an object; it changes perspective based on where you’re standing.”
Valentine disappears, but not because she was a figment of Maria’s imagination all along. Nor is her disappearance a facile echo of Wilhelm’s demise at the same spot, or Helena’s disappearance while out on a hike at the end of the play, which Maria insists is a suicide, but which Valentine argues is ambiguous (“maybe she reinvents herself elsewhere”). Valentine does not merely play Sigrid to Maria’s Helena, nor can she be reduced to Maria’s alter ego. Maria and Valentine, and Helena and Sigrid; Maria as Helena, and Maria as Sigrid; Maria and Jo-Ann; Maria and the attractive young woman who replaces Valentine, yet whose entry in the Epilogue is matter-of-fact, devoid of any charge. These relations seem to replicate one another, but each iteration is a mutation.
In the play, Sigrid warns that if she doesn’t leave both Helena and the company where they work, she will continue to isolate Helena from other people, extracting what she can from their relationship (“I’ll get a tighter and tighter hold on you”). Despite Sigrid’s unabashed candor, Helena remains unable to acknowledge this destructive impulse. Valentine suggests that this destructive blindness is in fact the truth of Helena’s desire. What is important here is not the content or accuracy of Valentine’s appraisal, but rather the fact that she holds Helena accountable for her own agency. As Sigrid reminds Helena in the same scene: “If you allowed yourself to be manipulated, it’s because you wanted it.”
The film resists resolution, and instead allows the characters’ different projected personas and ambiguities to coexist. Clouds of Sils Maria is not so much a hall of mirrors, but a prism. We know ourselves always in some way vis-à-vis the other, through the prismatic lens of that relation. We interpret others in part because we cannot ever fully know ourselves. But there is a limit to interpretation. When Maria finally sees the Maloja snake, Valentine is gone. It’s as if she no longer needs Valentine to register herself to herself. For a moment, there is no longer any distance.