Clouds of Sils Maria [2014]

This is another film where the critical commentary in reviews can be pretty fairly summed up in a few sentences:

In this  under-stated re-tooling of All About Eve, Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart give career-best performances. Famous actress Binoche takes her dorky personal assistant, Stewart, into the mountains to prepare for returning to the play she made famous, this time as the older lady in a tragic love affair rather than the young ingenue. As the line-readings are interspersed with in-character dialogue, the roles begin to bleed together and we can’t be sure who is speaking: the characters in the play, the characters, or the actresses.

Idiots. Summing up the film in this way is like reviewing an Agatha Christie story by outlining that a group of unlikely people have a connection to someone who’s murdered, before a detective turns up and figures out whodunit.

The basic narrative strategy that has been so well-noticed by other reviewers is the doubling of text and the blurring between the authentic characters and the representations they adopt in the fiction they practice. What reviewers have failed to notice is that this performance exists even inside the fiction on three levels rather than two, because the actresses portrayed exist as public entities too – which is the real Enders, the grand dame of the theatrical world in her black dress, the middle aged tourist in the middle of a divorce, or the doomed lover inside the fiction? Or is she really Juliet Binoche with a protective fictive layer, as has been suggested for both her young co-stars? All of these are in some senses performances, and even the discussions that perforate and punctuate the transitions from line reading to “ordinary life” are potentially sophistry, mere empty rhetoric that doesn’t reflect a genuine opinion but instead a need to maintain a fictive self-image.

I think that in the reviews above critical analysis has been halted by the difficulty that this blurring creates for identifying text versus subtext, which is the basis of most criticism. Recall that Fast 7 isn’t a dumb car movie, it’s a reworking of The Iliad‘s antagonist structure, right? That’s pulling out subtext to explain the true structure of a film; in a film like The Clouds of Sils Maria, that first basic kind of analysis has been done reflexively by the work itself. The subtext of a film about an aging actress returning to the play that made her famous is about change, about acknowledging that however compelling the viewpoint from the younger side, it remains only one viewpoint on the truth. This is then explicitly rendered as text via the insertion of the play fragments and the discussions between the characters about the meaning of the text. The critical apparatus now can’t start at reading the fiction, but must start with reviewing the point of criticism and analysis itself, as this is an explicit part of the function of the text.

Enders’ basic problem is that the role she played originally is of a user and betrayer. As the young lover who consumes her older paramour, she found herself in a position of power. She discusses openly how she transposed her contempt for the older character in the Majola Snake, an emotional response that powered her ability to play the role. As the older actress, she is unable to love the character she will play, leaving her sympathies on the wrong side of the drama. She is only able to fully accept the role when she meets the younger actress who will assume her place, an actress who heaps praise upon her and hence convinces her that she, as Enders, will remain loved even as her character in the Majola Snake is systematically destroyed. In essence, despite her examination and criticism, she is unable to use her altered function in the play to reflexively to understand her own emotional responses. She remains completely ignorant about the key emotional responses which drive the drama.

In her attempt to understand the role, she forces Valentine (Kirsten Bell) to read the lines from the play, and then attacks her own character, forcing Valentine to offer alternate interpretations of the play or give in to Enders’ narcissistic projection of herself as the unlovable and worthless character who deserves to be destroyed by the ingenue. Unable to “win” the fictional battle of wills, Enders stages it with her subordinate in the real world. The ambivalence that the critics are reading here as a kind of formal structural affectation in fact reflects a deep emotional problem for the characters to resolve. Through the middle of the film, Enders can’t aligns her viewpoint wih the older character she is to play. It is only once she has forced Valentine to abandon her, rather than be destroyed in the crossfire of Enders’ attempts to come to terms with the character she is to play, that she is able to inhabit the role, to understand a point of view other than hers.

A thing I always say is that all criticism, however well structured rhetorically, begins with an emotional reaction – I liked this, I didn’t like that. Criticism asks us to think about why we have an emotional reaction. Enders’ dabbling in critical reading of her play is blunted by her inability to honestly confront her own emotions. Conversely, Valentine is destroyed by her inability to separate her emotions from the arguments she’s having – she cannot divorce the ismissal of her arguments because she reads those as a dismissal of the emotions that generate them. 

I read The Clouds of Sils Maria not as a sterile exercise in post-modern contortion of reality, or of perception, but as a fully articulated (literally) emotional journey of character exploration. Behind the apparently sedate line readings and interjections there is a profoundly unequal battle of wills, as one woman destroys another rather than change her perspective on a 20-year-old dramatic experience, rather than genuinely examine her own emotional needs and history.  It is a tragedy of sorts, of willful ignorance of self, an ignorance which critics have pathetically embraced by casually deciding to accept the surface reading of the text without seeing how totally deliniated the characters really are, and that every obfuscation of identity is the protective covering Enders generates in order to protect her sense of self.

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