On "Clouds of Sils Maria" (Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart)

“There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.” 

-- Sophia Loren

We fear aging - no exceptions! But we fear aging in our own individual ways - for some, it is the lines that deepen the furrows on the brow, for some it is the inevitability of the passage of Time that will sweep you along, willingly or otherwise; even those who claim to have embraced the finality of human mortality feel the dread of being helpless to prevent it, and those who want to live 'until the last moment?' For them, aging is often the dread of inactivity, the ennui that comes from our refusal to let go of life's riches - the experiences, the people, the simple truth of just 'being.' No matter how we look at it, it is the thought of aging that scares us more than the process itself - a process that is ubiquitous in Nature - from the sub-atomic particles that age and wither in an instant to the massive galaxies whose lifespans we are yet to conclusively measure in human terms!  

But aging is more than just the finality of life -- "coming-of-age" is the term we use to signify blooming, a metamorphosis of physical, mental and emotional faculties that shapes us in our most formative years. It is the time when our nascent identities begin their perilous journey of attempting to establish themselves, solidifying our understanding of who we are, completely unaware of the millions of changes that lay waiting for us on the path ahead! It is also our most identifiable period of life - a period when our projections (emotional and physical) onto the world, and vice-versa, yield impressions that last a lifetime.

And in-between the alpha and the omega, lies the gray area that we call "Life" - a river that we must cross, some at a swift pace, some at a more languid meandering than others.  Oliver Assayas' new movie "Clouds of Sils Maria" explores the impressions from both the banks of this river - in the most breathtakingly evocative and universal, yet heartbreakingly personal fashion.

The movie begins with a death, the death of an important character who we never see on-screen, but whose ghostly presence guides and motivates the entire story. The first scene takes us on a train, awkwardly rolling through the Alps, whose motion mirrors the emotional roller-coaster in our main characters -- Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) and Valentine (Kristen Stewart). For one, the time has come, for the other, younger woman, the upheaval will reach its peak soon. Maria is a globally-successful actress whose oeuvre spans theatre, movies (artsy and Hollywood blockbusters), commercials (implied but not shown), and more. Valentine is her personal assistant. Marie is on her way to receive a special prize on behalf of a close friend and playwright, whose play (and a movie based on that play) "Maloja Snake" propelled her to stardom and eventual success. On the train, she receives the news of his death, and Assayas deftly potrays the gulf between the two banks of the aforementioned river, by showing how each generation chooses to process this significant event.

Circumstances lead Maria to accept the part of the older Helena in a new production of the same play, with her erstwhile role of Sigrid, being played by Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz) - a 19 year old starlet with a penchant for controversy and scandals. The play depicts the tale of an older woman who is manipulated into a relationship by the younger woman, who schemes her way into the older woman's life and then cruelly dumps her, leading her to suicide.

The narrative is an exquisite mystery of layers of metalanguage, connected by the solidly-written script, wonderful vistas used as the background for pivotal moments, and dazzling performances by the leading trio. As Maria begins learning the lines anew, from the perspective of the older woman, she is reluctant to let go of Sigrid, the role that made her famous, the role that she subconsciously identifies most with! The complex dynamic of mentor-protege unfolds over several interactions between Marie and Val - where the dualities blend to the extent that we are unable to separate Marie/Helena from their predicament, and it is the young pragmatism of Valentine that keeps her (unsuccessfully) disassociated from Sigrid. The real-life Maloja Snake is a cloud formation that is considered a harbinger of foul weather, and its appearance in the tale does indeed bring about a tragic change.

The "clouds" in the title, however, go deeper than the geo-physical phenomenon. As an aging star who is forced to step into the shoes of the woman she previously manipulated, Marie/Helena's perspective is clouded by self-doubt, insecurity and the fear of facing a younger reflection of herself in the new Sigrid. In Valentine's case, her entire existence has forever been "under the cloud" of her employer, who loves and cares for her, but also uses her as a venting ground for her personal issues. And in Jo-Ann, we find that a life that stands "on the clouds," adored and worshipped by legions of young adult fans, is nonetheless one of the most emotionally stunted, and the one scene where Moretz reveals a sliver of an underlying layer of maturity and humanity (in the epilogue) is ambiguous -- is she acting even when there are no cameras trained on her?

The women (for there are hardly any male characters who serve any other purpose than timely exposition) smoke - a lot, each creating a cloud of smoke around her, a shell that traps her, holds her back, or even veils her true self from curious observers.

Assayas also uses the Maloja Snake as a visual framing for the play itself, with Moretz's character (Sigrid) snaking her way through cubicles and offices made of frosted glass (clouds), collecting files and making her way towards Helena. The final image of the movie is Helena's face (with Marie's visage imprinted on it), illuminated, as if the clouds/veils had parted, for her to finally see the world as it was, and accept her place in it.

Assayas brings out brilliant performances from all the actresses (and the handful of male-actors, who serve as checkpoints in the story.) Binoche is dazzling (as usual) in her turn as the older actress - alternatively portraying the vulnerability of Helena and the stark pragmatism of Marie. Her scenes with Val are astounding in their emotional range and chemistry. Chloe Grace Moretz conveys the angst of a teen superstar with both grace and urgency -- the frantic urgency of a starlet whose public image is that of a 'bad' girl, compared to the gracefully elegant image she wears behind closed doors. But the ultimate strength of Moretz's acting lies in the fact that none of these images are truly her, and we are always left wondering if what we just saw was another scene enacted for the benefit of the audience around her. The tour-de-force of the cast is however, the understated performance by Kristen Stewart as Valentine (we never get to know her last name.) In what could possibly be an award-raking performance, Stewart displays a virtuosity that belies her years as an actress. Understandably, she won the Cesar Award for best supporting actress, the first American actress to receive the Cesar.

One of the most brilliant films to come out this year!