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category: Review

Side Street Films: The Clouds of Sils Maria

Friday, August 14, 2015 by

Eden Cinemas’ innovative Side Street Films programme is aimed at showing that there is “more to cinema than Hollywood” – and we couldn’t agree more. Our resident cineaste Shaun Antnin takes a look at the fortnightly offerings from Eden’s artistically oriented programme and decides what they are worth.

Famed actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is offered the opportunity to star in a re-boot of her recently-deceased mentor Wilhelm Melchior’s most famous play, Maloja Snake: the very production which first put her on the road to film stardom, just over twenty years before. The play concerns the relationship between an older, heterosexual woman and a female employee, twenty years her junior, whom she falls in love with and is subsequently manipulated by.

At the onset of her career, Maria had played Sigrid,the younger of the two women. Now, two decades on, she is to play Helena, the elder woman. However, she is reluctant to accept a role in a play which she sees as belonging to her past, just as she is unwilling to admit that the passage of time is forcing her to consider roles which she previously would not have accepted. Valentine (Kirsten Stewart), her PA, persuades her to take the part, and the two relocate to Melchior’s chalet home, high in the Swiss mountains, to run through the lines and prepare for the role.

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The body of the film concerns itself with the development of Valentine and Maria’s increasingly complex and fraught relationship over their time in the chalet. Central to this depiction is the way in which the two women must slip in and out of character, often creating ambiguity between whether Maria is speaking to Valentine or ‘Helena’ is speaking to ‘Sigrid’, as personal emotions and frustrations seep in and blur the distinction between art and life.

Later on, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz) – the actress cast in the role of Sigret – makes an appearance. Her presence adds an extra layer to the work, introducing a sub-plot unrelated to Maria and Valentine’s situation. On a technical level, Moretz does a sterling job with the (comparatively scant) screen time she is allocated proving herself a very capable actress.  But, ultimately, this film has two stars: Binoche and Stewart, and the true support act comes in the form of the literal Maloja Snake – a cloud formation which snakes through the same mountain valley they are housed – and it is these performances upon which the success of this work is hinged.

Key to the film’s impact are the parallels between Maria and Valentine’s relationship and that of Helena and Sigret; the friction between Maria’s memories of Sigret and Valentine’s reading of the role. Added to this is the viewer’s extra-diegetic knowledge of Binoche and Stewart’s personas and back catalogues. Although Stewart really proves her acting credentials here, she is the supporting actress and Binoche undoubtedly the lead. Unlike Stewart and Ellis, competency at her craft is something which Binoche has nothing left to prove, having featured in both art films and Hollywood blockbusters, and this is where one problem lies: trying to pass the fifty-two-year-old Binoche off as a forty year old was not the wisest of ideas.

Nor was making a film which wants to be – or should be – a play. Film as a medium has the potential to depict both the large scale and the small scale on the big screen, but it must provide something which demonstrates best use of its affordances and remind the audiences why they have parted with their money to sit in a darkened room for two hours. And this is my main bone of contention.

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There is nothing of this film, save the scenery and footage of the Snake, which warrants or befits the medium of film. The situation the protagonists are placed in – a wealthy actor and her assistant in a beautiful chalet, inset in idyllic Swiss mountains – is something few of us will be fortunate enough to emote with, so this leaves the escalation of the characters’ relationship as the plot’s raison d’etre, and there isn’t mileage in the characters or their circumstances to elicit sufficient empathy.

An acting tour de force by two actresses may be enough for some viewers – especially fans of either actress – but it wasn’t enough for me. In its defence, maybe its themes were a little too female for me to empathise with, but ultimately this is a solid piece but it serves as an acting exhibition rather than as cinematic art.

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