Every year around Oscar® time, we hear that there are very few choice roles in Hollywood for older women unless your name is Meryl Streep. That may be true as society becomes increasingly obsessed with youth and their exploits. The tabloids are awash with the latest news of Kim’s butt, Miley’s twerk and Lindsay’s… well, what doesn’t she do to get her name in the press? If you’re over 40 though, it’s all over for you.
Or is it?
CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA is the latest film by French director/writer Olivier Assayas (PARIS, JE T’AIME). A few years back, actress Juliette Binoche pitched an idea to Assayas about a middle-aged actress who struggles to accept that her career may be over. He liked it and this film is the result.
Maria Enders (played by Binoche) is a world-famous actress at the pinnacle of her success. But all is not rosy. She is the process of getting a divorce, she is vulnerable and she may be relying on her highly efficient, personal assistant, Val (Kristen Stewart) a little bit too much for her own good. The two of them are on their way to Zurich to accept an award on behalf of her friend and mentor, playwright Wilhelm Melchior, when they learn that Melchior has died. The playwright cast her in his play (and later his film), Maloja Snake, twenty-odd years ago when she was 18. It was the role that launched Maria’s career to stardom. The two women arrive in Zurich and immediately get to work. There’s no time for Maria to mourn. The show must go on, including a photo shoot that Maria does for Chanel. While there, she is approached by a young director who wants her to star in a revival of Melchior’s play. The first time around, Maria played Sigrid, a young female assistant who sexually manipulates and uses her boss – a burnt-out, middle-aged businesswoman – to the point of the older woman’s suicide. This time, the director wants Maria to play Helena, the older woman, opposite up-and-coming tabloid bad girl, the vacuous, selfish but hugely popular Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz).
Maloja Snake represents a poisoned chalice to Maria. While the role of Helena will cement Maria’s place in acting’s pantheon, it represents a change in how Maria will have to see herself going forward. She is no longer the ingénue. That role now belongs to the Jo-Anns of the world, who are, as Val says, the antiseptic of Hollywood. The play also holds fear for Maria because the actress who played Helena to Maria’s Sigrid twenty years earlier committed suicide one year after the play ended its run. Deep down, does Maria think she was the cause of her colleague’s death? Perhaps, but to Maria, Maloja Snake launches one career while marking the end of another.
Quite fittingly, CLOUDS is presented in two acts with an epilogue. In the second act, set six months later, Maria and Val are moving into Melchior’s house in Sils-Maria, not far from St. Moritz in the Swiss Alps. Maria’s hair is cut short and gone are the trappings of glamour and femininity. While the first act showed Maria as the seductive celebrity, now she is the working actress. The sexiness is replaced by a scrubbed look. Val helps Maria prepare for her role as they read lines together but it’s often difficult to distinguish between reality and fiction as their own relationship nearly parallels that of Helena and Sigrid. It’s a situation that frightens both of them but it’s one that is mutually fulfilling at the same time.
It would be very easy to dismiss Kristen Stewart (the TWILIGHT series) as a flash in the pan but she keeps notching up solid performances. In this film she has great chemistry with Binoche. Their words seem earnest and their laughter genuine. Binoche, as always, is resplendent. Her ability to show a woman coming to terms with having to make that leap over the chasm to “the other side of 40” is refreshing real. Anyone – woman or man – who has been there will be able to relate.
CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA is a thought-provoking study of youth and aging. It’s not going to set the box office on fire but it is a film worth seeing and not just for the stunning alpine scenery.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 36:00.)