Clouds of Sils Maria


This one feels like an acting class.  There’s lots of talk about performance, about how to “take on” a character, how to deliver lines, even trying to understand character motivations.  But though the performances from these two main characters, played by Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart, are at times full of depth and liveliness, the movie is saddled by too many difficulties.  It’s too long.  It’s needlessly subtitled in places (as Juliette receives phone calls from people who talk French, and she responds in kind).  It takes strange left turns in the plot without really explaining why.  It divides itself into two parts and an epilogue that don’t hold together well.  It contains “cut scenes” that are distractingly not mixed well, like an actress having her arm in a different place on the chair while delivering the same line.  And the sound quality is frustratingly bad, especially as it tries to pick up dialogue delivered from the next room.  Cinema verite, perhaps, or maybe just plain lazy.

Juliette Binoche plays Maria Enders, a celebrated stage and screen actress who’s now unhappily middle-aged.  When she was only 18, she played a career-defining role where she sparred continually with an older actress who was fearful of being upstaged by younger actresses, so she compensates by trying to seduce her young counterpart.  Maria Enders loved that role, but now she’s being asked to play the other character, the older one, and it doesn’t sit well with her.  But she reluctantly agrees, partly on the insistence of her young personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), who assures her that it will be good for her career, and will showcase her considerable versatility.

There are lots of scenes of Maria and Valentine rehearsing the parts, trying to get “off book,” and yes, the dynamics of the younger actress sparring with the older one are immediately present in the two of them.  There’s not exactly sexual tension, but there’s certainly a lot of energy, and focus, and drama, and emotional intimacy.  In fact, the whole thing is so all-consuming for Valentine that she simply decides she has to take another job, which infuriates Maria, who’s so emotional about it that you wonder if maybe there was some sexual tension there, after all.  Certainly a lot of estrogen energy.

The setting for all this is rather stunning:  a remote little cabin in the Swiss Alps, near a place called Sils Maria, where the clouds, at times, move through the winding valley carried by the wind, so that the movement itself resembles a snake.  And there are a few snakes here in the male roles also;  a Director who says one thing and means another;  a writer who is in the midst of ditching his wife, and the mother of his children, for a young “trophy” actress, who seems to have no trouble with the “home wrecker” label.  Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moritz) is in fact to play the role of the younger actress in this play, yes, the one that Maria Enders launched her career on, and Jo-Ann at least has sense enough to grease the skids by fawning over Maria, treating her as a celebrity, which mollifies Maria considerably, but we wonder then about her shallowness.

Come to think of it, everyone here seems to be terribly self-absorbed, but smart and talented and hard-working, as well, so the whole thing feels like Hollywood starlets just being themselves.  And maybe they are.  So there are times when that’s really fascinating, but after a while, a little bit of egomania goes a long way.


Questions For Discussion:

1)                            The “elephant in the room” here is the power of youth and good looks.  How does that apply, to say, ministerial candidates in a congregation seeking a pastor?

2)                            Have you experienced “age-ism” in your place of employment?  In the Church?

3)                            Valentine quits, in part, because she feels the job has become so demanding that she doesn’t have any time for a personal life.  When does that dynamic apply to pastors in churches?  How can congregations avoid that dynamic?


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen is the Supply Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Kaufman , Texas