Unravelling the layers of existence

A brilliantly layered and sensitive look at the contrasting stages of life, the 2014 film The Clouds of Sils Maria stars Juliette Binoche as Maria Enders, an accomplished stage actress who becomes painfully aware of the relationships between herself and the characters she portrays when she is asked to perform in the play that kick-started her career.

Rather than reprising her portrayal of the fierce, young Sigrid in this remount of The Maloja Snake, however, Maria will this time play the much older and more vulnerable Helena – a switch that triggers a cascade of anxiety and self-doubt in Maria..

Terrified of Helena’s frailties and insecurities, Maria is forced to grapple with stark similarities between her character and herself as she slips into the skin of this defeated woman.

Running lines with her young assistant, Valentine (played by Kristen Stewart), Maria yearns for the past, even as she experiences a strangely cathartic shift from the character of powerful, confident Sigrid to the fragile, victimized Helena. The two women inject remarkable energy and nuance into the dialogue they’re rehearsing, creating a sometimes tense, yet subtly sexual, dynamic as they struggle to understand their characters and one another.  

The Clouds of Sils Maria constantly blurs the lines between the film and the play within the film. The actress-playing-an-actress device is a constant reminder that we are, in fact, watching a film, while also showing us how very much like a film (or a play) life can be.

Various devices are employed throughout the movie to force the viewer into contemplating the artificiality of what we are viewing. The inciting incident of the film, for example, is the sudden death of The Maloja Snake’s playwright, immediately drawing our attention to the idea of authorship – and of a created fiction. Similarly, Maria and Valentine spend much of their time together either talking about film and theatre or running lines from The Maloja Snake, the play’s dialogue mirroring their own lives and that of Maria’s co-star, the mega-hyped ingénue Jo-Ann (Chloë Grace Moretz).  

In addition to the play-within-the-film, there is also a film-within-the-film. German filmmaker Arnold Fanck’s Cloud Phenomenon of Maloja (1924) portrays the winding snake-like cloud formations of Maloja in a beautiful sequence captured in sumptuous black and white film. The Clouds of Sils Maria displays the same spectacular scenery almost a century later – the landscape and cloud formations remaining essentially the same, while the lives of the people that exist in this landscape have shifted and changed dramatically.

The Clouds of Sils Maria is a sophisticated dance of landscape, time, and emotion. The mysterious cloud formation of the Maloja snake is a wonderful metaphor: the snake is a storm that has occurred repeatedly, long before Maria’s time, and will continue to occur long after it. Similarly, the play The Maloja Snake could be performed over and over, indefinitely, by actors in the near and distant future and while the text won’t change, the perspectives must.

The Clouds of Sils Maria will be screened on Sunday, Sept. 20 at 7:30 p.m. at the Yukon Arts Centre.

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