The Clouds of Sils Maria

Olivier Assayas’ The Clouds of Sils Maria is a film of role reversals, twists of fate and hairpin turns, a giddying ride of personal transformation high up in the Swiss mountains.

Maria Enders is a middle-aged actress who’s been invited to revisit the play that kick-started her career. Only this time, she is to play the older woman, who is seduced and destroyed by the younger Helena, the part that was hers years before. As she practises her lines with her assistant Valentine, their sparky relationship mirrors that of the play’s and the line between life and art becomes almost indistinguishable.

 

 

As with the passing weather patterns overhead, The Clouds of Sils Maria shifts gear in its dizzying changes of register and setting; one moment we are on the red carpet, the next hiking up mountains at altitude. As critic Mark Kermode observed: “Assayas establishes a complex emotional weather system in which age and identity ebb and flow as mysteriously as the titular clouds that snake through the Engadin valley.”

Breathtaking alpine shots – some of which are taken from Arnold Fanck’s 1924 documentary Cloud Phenomena of Maloja – are effectively interwoven into the narrative, symbols of retreat and infitnitude from the gruelling demands of the film industry. And yet, studying their sharp edges and steep descents, we cannot help but inhabit the mind of Maria, who is haunted by the prospect of a fall from stardom. 

This collision of inner and outer topography is what makes The Clouds of Sils Maria so alive and effervescent, a film often compared to the “great two-woman chamber dramas” of Persona (1966) and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), from Ingmar Bergman and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Within the rich patchwork of these female relationships lies the unglamorous truth that change is the substance of the human condition, as quotidian as the changing winds, the endlessly forming clouds. 

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