"For me it was more than a role"

“For me it was more than a role”

 

Every person might believe that their identity can be summed up in a few words, but in truth, each person’s identity is a long, complicated, scientific equation. It’s contains talent and experiences, of goals strived-for and failures never forgotten. Certain elements are constant throughout our years, but so many variables come and go that make us different people as we go through life’s journey. So with all of that uncertainty, how can we ever think that we “know” someone? How can we know what they’re capable of? How can we know what they want? Hell, with so much in-flux, how can we ever truly know ourselves?

As CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA begins, esteemed actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is on her way to Zurich. She is supposed to be participating in a tribute to a director that helped establish her talent – the Almodovar to her Cruz, if you will. On the way there though, the plan gets thrown for a loop when her mentoring director suddenly dies. Her personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart) does what she can to help Maria navigate the situation, but there’s no getting around the difficulty of it all: What was once a tribute is now a wake.

As the dust settles, Maria is offered a stage role by a vanguard director. The idea is for her to perform in “Maloja Snake”: the play about a forty-year-old business woman who falls for her eighteen year old assistant. the twist is that it was the role of the assistant that first shot her to fame, and now she’d be playing the opposite part. Maria is hesitant to do it, but after some soul-searching and lengthy discussion with Valentine, she agrees.

The burr in the saddle is that the younger part will be played by a celebrity starlet named Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Moretz). Jo-Ann is not without talent, but her gifts and presence seem to continually be overshadowed with her hard-living and residence in gossipy internet headlines. She is a starlet; Maria is an actress. Whether or no she can pull off the role isn’t what’s in question – it’s whether or not she should have been handed the role in the first place.

Still, Maria and Valentin stay in seclusion in Switzerland and prepare for the part. The run lines, they rehearse, they discuss what has happened, and what is to come. Sometimes they try to shape the role, sometimes Maria’s career on the whole. Other times, it’s the very art itself that is up for discussion.

But as the curtain draws ever-nearer and questions surrounding the production continue to swirl, one thing is certain…Maria could not have made it through this flash point in her life without Valentine by her side.

 

Kristen Stewart in CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA

 

There is a very specific sort of admiration and respect between Maria and Valentine, and I dare say it’s the sort of relationship we don’t see on-screen very often. The chemistry between these characters is one built on intimacy, respect, creativity, love, and pushing boundaries. More often than not it seems far less professional, and far more romantic. But to that end, the romance we witness is less burning physical affection, and more of quiet and comfortable contemplation. They challenge each other’s notion, and seem to regard Maria’s output less as a controlled image than a collaborative creative coming-together.

There’s a beautiful connection between Binoche and Stewart that frames them as kindred spirits. They are in a place where each one is feeling somewhat uneasy, but they also truly care about what the other thinks and feels. It’s rare that this sort of relationship is captured on film, and it’s one of the most lasting qualities of CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA.

What makes this relationship even more special is the way it interweaves with the film’s theme of growing older. With so much talk about “Maloja Snake” and Maria’s role within it, there’s a natural comparison about how some parts of our personalities are what they are for such a fleeting moment. One day we are the angsty, erratic, up-and-coming talent; not much later, we are the wise, worn, mentor. We might feel as though we are still identified as our younger selves, but the truth is far from it. So it is in love. Where we start out wanting someone who can light us up like a pinball machine and make us melt with a look, where we inevitably get to is a desire for someone who completes us emotionally.

The same way Maria grows out of the younger part, and struggles in her new role as the mature woman, so too should do we grow out of our frivolous skirt-chasing, and often struggle with deeper emotional discourse.

The film’s curiosity with generational dichotomy even grafts itself onto the nature of celebrity in an age of franchise films and tabloid internet.

Where franchise films are concerned, the accepted notion by an older and more elite connoisseur is that they can’t offer anything of substance. They are spoken-of with disgust, considered a paycheque for all involved and a cash grab from a lowbrow audience. So when we listen to Valentine deconstruct what is happening within the framework of one of them, it’s truly disarming. She’s an intelligent person of considerable taste, so there’s no mistaking her opinions for that of a raving fangirl. When she asks whether it matters if the struggle happens between two aliens or two workers on a factory floor, she’s hitting a bullseye we don’t expect out of an art house movie.

As for the tabloid coverage of celebrity culture, the film takes an amazing tact to challenge our notions. Jo-Ann Ellis is only an otherly presence in this film for the first two acts. She is a name that is spoken, and a personality only seen through online videos. We have no idea who she really is, what she can really do, or how she will affect everyone around her. This is true of every piece of tabloid fodder we know and have our own perceptions of – including one who co-stars in this film. The film wants us to consider what we think we know, and perhaps reserve judgement. This is something that grows more difficult as we age and grow deeper into our own convictions…but that’s just the point.

There are so many emotions gathering in CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA. There’s insecurity, sorrow, love, pride, and adoration, but I believe that the emotion it wants us to take with us most as we wander back down the mountain is empathy. Empathy for the people we claim to care about, and empathy for strangers that we think we know. It wants us to read the script from the other role a little more often, and consider how that part was ours once…or will be someday soon.

 

Matineescore: ★ ★ ★ ★ out of ★ ★ ★ ★
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