Some moviegoers will find the film Clouds of Sils Maria difficult. When my wife Diana and I saw it recently, the young lady sweeping up popcorn afterward confided to us that, at some showings, people actually walked out during the show. It was nearly mid-way through before I really caught on and began to see how this ostensibly humdrum movie was not just “literary,” but profoundly so, and was—rather brilliantly—going somewhere.
The story is about an acclaimed actress, Maria Enders (played by the acclaimed actress Juliette Binoche), who had played a part in a stage (and movie) drama twenty years before. The play was titled Maloja Snake, the name of a phenomenon in which clouds mysteriously snake through an Alpine valley near Sils Maria, a remote Swiss settlement.
Now Maria has agreed to reappear in the play, this time not in the role of the young Helena, but as Helena’s older, middle-aged lover, Sigrid. In the new version, the callous Helena is to be played by Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz). As Maria practices her lines with her assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), the viewer finds it difficult at times to discern whether the friction between the two is merely that of the roles or instead an actually developing tension between Maria and Valentine.
Until that begins to happen (putting aside the interesting opening events surrounding the death of the playwright, at whose Sils Maria home Maria and Valentine have since holed up), one might sympathize with those filmgoers who walked out prematurely.
From there on, however, the comprehending viewer becomes caught in the tense drama, learning that in the play, Helena, the young seductress, eventually chooses suicide. Near the end of the movie—well, perhaps I’ve said enough.
If you can handle complexity, ambiguity, and often-dark realism, Clouds of Sils Maria will reward you with a drama its director (Olivier Assayas) termed “a reflection on the past.” You will also applaud the performances of Binoche and Stewart, especially, but Moretz as well, in a lesser role. You may also find yourself reflecting on your own past.
Rating: Three and a half wooden nickels (out of four)