Note: I didn’t have a script for the movie so I’ve approximated dialogue as I remembered it. It’s not exact, only the gist of it.
Nietzsche, Me and the movie, Clouds of Sils Maria
The movie, Clouds of Sils Maria, isn’t going to win any attendance records. It’s cerebral and some reviewers call it pretentious. When I’ve told people they’ve got to see it, that it’s a great movie, they want to know what it’s about and I respond, “It’s about an middle-aged woman who questions her relevance as an older actress,” and they look bored. Aging isn’t exciting. It’s debilitating. But my explanation isn’t even half-right so let me try again. What I should say is, “It’s about an older woman who faces down maturity in an ever-changing world where youth and Google-standing seem to carry more weight than ability and experience.” But no, I’m still not there. It’s more than that.
Olivier Assayas has written a layered screenplay, a story within a story. And it’s metafictional so that’s three layers. On the interior level is the play, The Malorja Snake, about an older businesswoman, Helena, who falls in love with her Personal Assistant, the sadistic Sigrid, who systematically isolates the older woman, seduces her, and then, with the merciless cruelty of the young, leaves her devastated in the final act, so devastated and alone she commits suicide.
A cinematic metaphor, the Molorja snake is a long sinuous cloud that slides and undulates through the Alpine mountains of Sils Maria in Switzerland, the location for most of the movie. The cloud, described by ancients as a mythical dragon with the head of a cat and no legs, has been more recently compared to a boa constrictor. In the guise of constrictor, it exemplifies an important metaphor in the movie. But it’s a dual metaphor because the snake has a much stronger and far more positive meaning. A snake sheds its skin and in this guise is an ancient symbol of rebirth and regeneration.
The philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, lived in Sils Maria during the summers of 1881, and 1883-88 and it was in Sils Maria that he developed his theory of eternal recurrence. Maybe he was sitting on the mountaintop watching the Malorja Snake drift by. I like to think so. Assayas says in an interview with Dissolve.
It’s a movie about very basic human emotions, which have to do with time passing, the perspective you have on your past and so on and so forth. It’s seen through the eyes of an actress, but ultimately she experiences it more vividly because she’s an actress, because she has to deal with it for a part. She’s involved in creating and re-inventing a character, and she has to face emotions that eventually in real life she would be able to escape.
I don’t like to work so hard to understand a movie and I have the option of resisting, of looking at it only on the most superficial level and I do that with many things, many books and works of art. I can’t dive headfirst into everything. But there is something that is calling to me in this movie. It embodies some of the issues I’ve been grappling with lately, issues of aging and changed perspective of memory and how memory affects perspective, how some memories are processed and reprocessed from different points of view as I age and sometimes I have an aha moment.
Indulge me for a moment and imagine a tower of sorts with a winding staircase. The staircase rungs are circular and clear when you look down from the top but opaque when you look up from the bottom. So you can only know what is in the past not what is in the future; the future can only be imagined. This is a magic tower and the walls are mirrored. I can see myself reflected in them, not only the image of the physical me, but inside me, into my mind. I can see my attitudes and my beliefs. If I go down to the bottom of the staircase, I see reflected the trust and innocence I had as a child. If I go up a little, I see the confidence I had as a young woman when I felt I was right and I was annoyed with old people who were in my way. I wanted them to disappear. If I go a little farther up the stairs, I become less sure that I’m right, less sure I know what I am doing at any given time. There is a rule in this tower of mirrors. I can go up to my age but no farther. I can only know how it feels to be this age, 73, which is pretty old. It’s hard for me to believe that I’ll get any older. I can’t peek and see how it will be when I’m 93 assuming I get that far.
This is what the movie is about and it is amplified because the main character of Maria is an actress and a good actress inhabits the character she plays because, by inhabiting the character, she can naturally and spontaneously show us what it is like to be that character.
Eternal return (also known as “eternal recurrence”) is a concept that the universe has been recurring, and will continue to recur, in a self-similar form an infinite number of times across infinite time and space.
We repeat ourselves and my rebellions of yesteryear cycle back and slap me, sometimes so hard it reverberates. And I see myself in a younger woman as she stands up to me, defiant and angry, and as she belittles my beliefs and values, I realize I have become the very person I once rebelled against. How did this happen? That brave iconoclastic young woman of yesteryear is now the icon and must be smashed. I resent it and I want to cry out to the younger woman that I too am brave. I too am strong and I too have fought against the barrier of time. But she can’t understand. She isn’t where I am. She is 20 or 30 or 40 and can’t see beyond that step, that rung of the stairway. And I now possess the very traits I once hated in some older woman. I see the shock on that woman’s face, the older woman from long ago, and shudder. I’m sorry I hurt her but it was necessary; it was necessary and justified then, just as it is necessary and justified now. And I watch as if at a play the younger women who occasionally contradict my opinion with snappish dismissal. I see myself at her age doing the same thing and I think I have become old, not that I have become my mother but someone else. I have become who my mother would have been if she had lived my life, if she had come of age in the 60’s instead of the 40’s. And I think that this is fair, this is the way things are. This is life and since I am at this rung of life, I must accept it. They, the younger ones, don’t need to accept it. They haven’t gotten there yet and when they get to this rung, it will be different but the same, and what they understand when they are my age will be something else.
For now, I accept the condemnation as the slap was intended because the world that shaped her, that younger woman, is entirely and completely different from the world I experienced. My world is merely a reflection, a passing glance, at an opinion of mine that has spiraled out of relevance. The perspective of my age is now defined, whereas hers, the young woman’s, is in the process. And we can never, at whatever age we are, get out of the vertical tower of Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence.
In the tower, I turn round and round, viewing myself at all angles and at all ages. Maria Enders, as played by Juliette Binoche, is turning round also and the slaps that she suffers at the hands of Val, Valentine, her personal assistant as played by Kristen Stewart, and JoAnn Ellis as played by Chloë Grace Moretz, are necessary to her personal growth and development as a human being. This is the intention of Olivier Assayas who wrote the part for Binoche. This is her movie and her journey. It is the journey of a heroine. Kristen Stewart as Val does such a good job of acting that she almost steals the show and she does indeed dominate Part II of the movie.
But the movie is about Maria’s life journey, not Val’s. She is the heroine fighting the dragon. She fights against her incarnation as Helena, the shunned woman in The Malorja Snake. Maria made her name as Sigrid but now she is asked to play the role of scorned older woman. She tells the young director, Klaus, played by Lars Eidinger, that as Sigrid, she felt free, destructive and unpredictable. “Beyond everything, I’ve always identified with that freedom.”
I think Assayas may have used the character of Maria as a vehicle to embody Nietzsche’s concept of Übermensch, most commonly translated into English as Superman but the word Superman is a misnomer and has childish connections to comic book characters. There’s quite a discussion about this. According to Wikipedia,
The German prefix über can have connotations of superiority, transcendence, excessiveness, or intensity, depending on the words to which it is prepended (a word added to the front of another). Mensch refers to a member of the human species, rather than to a male specifically.
So the word, Übermensch, is gender neutral and Maria is akin to an ancient heroine with a dragon to slay and the dragon is herself, her fear of aging, her fear of becoming irrelevant in a society that glorifies the young and their excesses. Maria passionately attempts to explain how she feels to Klaus, played by Lars Eidinger, the young director of The Malorja Snake in the movie.
Maria says, “I played Sigrid when I was 18 years old and it was more than just a role for me. Somehow I stayed Sigrid, exactly. Sigrid is free beyond all. She is disruptive and unpredictable and I have always identified with that freedom.”
She goes on to say that Helena embodies the opposite. The character of Helena is forty and has led a small bourgeois life, with children, a business, and responsibilities. Helena sacrifices everything for Sigrid and her spider’s web of isolation and dominance. She says that the character Sigrid brings out the hidden violence in Helena.
Klaus is bent on persuading her to do the part. He tells her, “There is no antagonism. This is the attraction of two injured women. Sigrid and Helena are the same person. This is the subject of the play. Since you were Sigrid, only you can play Helena.”
This scene is central to the meaning of the movie and it happens early on. Maria is both Sigrid and Helena and she is the only one who can play Helena because in her youth she was Sigrid. She is Sigrid exactly as she says but she is Helena too and her perspective is now wonderfully encompassing because she knows the animus of both the young and the old. Of all other actresses in the world only Maria has that perspective and that is what will save her from self-destruction. She will play Helena differently from the original Helena and she will be stronger. Maria must face down her demons, her snakes, her dragons. I’m going to requote what Assayas said in the interview with The Dissolve.
She’s involved in creating and re-inventing a character, and she has to face emotions that eventually in real life she would be able to escape.
In the same interview Juliette Binoche is asked about the self-reflexive nature of the film. Binoche is 50, an aging actress herself.
I loved what Olivier said earlier about emotion because I really feel that’s what an actor has to do: not identify with the emotions, but go through them so that you transform them. And then you have a better knowledge about yourself. That’s what my character is facing, that it’s so hard sometimes to go into the worries of the world that we all have inside of us. What I love in a film is to be able to see the cost of a creation, to see that you’ve gotta face your demons and find a lightness going through the dark stuff inside. At the end of the day it’s the courage that takes you through things that makes you realize that you’ve done something to yourself.
As they rehearse for the play, Maria for the part of Helena and Val as stand-in reading the part of Sigrid, they take on the personas of the two women in the play. Maria lashes out at a stunned and patient Val when Val attempts to explain the younger generation’s attraction to fantasy and the dystopian science fiction. The two go to see a 3-D Sci-Fi movie starring JoAnn Ellis, the actress who will play Sigrid in the upcoming play. Val comments that JoAnn has the guts to be herself.
“That’s pretty cool at her age.” Val says. “She’s my favorite actress.”
“You mean more than me?” Maria wails. “And what am I? A conventional actress? Boring? I don’t have the same intensity?”
“I didn’t say that,” Val responds but with cold-eyed distance, patient with the older woman.
As they read the roles for the play, Maria becomes progressively more hysterical and Val, as if to balance, reads Sigrid’s part with deadpan professionalism. Both Maria and Val are beginning to feel constricted by the roles forced upon them. Maria hates the play and wants out. There is an element of danger in the air as if Maria is on a collision course with disaster. The more she practices the part of Helena, the angrier she becomes. A chasm of despair waits for her and she takes it out on Val, belittling the conventions of her world and her ideas. Threatened by youth and a world she cannot fathom, Maria feels old, irrelevant. Val, smart, intelligent Val, recognizes and fears Maria’s displaced tantrums. She has become Maria’s whipping girl, a stand in for her rage at growing old.
Val begs off for an evening to visit her photographer boyfriend. Increasingly she feels suffocated in her position as Maria’s nursemaid. She careens down the mountain to the harsh dissonance of Primal Scream’s Kowalski, stopping only to vomit on the side of the road. I’m not a fan of Primal Scream and was happy when the gripping intensity of this particular scene finally released me but it was a good scene evocative of the ghost-like evil of the Malorja Snake clouds nibbling at her psyche.
I’ve never taken a course in philosophy and I associate Nietzsche with nihilism and atheism so I wasn’t drawn to him. I believe wholeheartedly in God, maybe not the Catholic God of my childhood but I believe definitely in God. I see him everywhere, in all creation. But I realized that to understand the movie, I needed to understand Nietzsche at least in how his philosophy affected the film and there were several scenes in the movie that I thought were clearly evocative of Nietzsche.
In a key scene, the scene that ends Part II, Maria and Val hike to a mountain top in the early morning to view the Malorja snake. Maria is amazed that Val knows her way. There are a lot of turns. Val replies that she has a map. Get it. Val doesn’t need to have been there before, doesn’t need to be forty to understand forty. She has a map and, if she pays attention, it will tell her what to do. Val does everything for Maria and is annoyed that Maria doesn’t understand. Maria marches off to a spot near the edge assuming Val is behind her as always. The camera stays on Maria following her to the precipice where she turns to look for Val but Val isn’t there. She cries out but there is no answer. To me this was the force of the Malorja snake. Both women were in a constrictive relationship and it wasn’t healthy. Val realizes this and, like a snake, decides to shed her skin, her time with Maria, on the mountaintop. Maria is stricken and can’t believe she has been deserted. She cries out and runs after Val but Val is gone. Movie clip leading to Val’s disappearance
The next part of the movie is the Epilogue. I think Assayas does this so that we will know that the main part of the action is over. Assayas is making it clear that the Epilogue should not be viewed as the final act. It is an epilogue. Why does he do it that way? Maybe because the action is over. The only thing left to do is it clear up some fine points and bring the movie to a comfortable conclusion. Part one was about the play, The Malorja Snake, and the relationship between Sigrid and Helena, Part II about the relationship between Maria and Val. Part III, if there had been one, would have chronicled the lives of the actresses who played the parts of Maria and Val, of Helena and Sigrid, the real life actresses, Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart, but that story is still being told.
In the Epilogue, Val has been replaced by a new personal assistant whose relationship with Maria is formal and professional. No more college dorm atmosphere. The action is dominated by Maria and JoAnn who stages — I think it was staged — a paparazzi coup and takes over the public interest. Can you stage your boyfriend’s girlfriend’s suicide? The innocent don’t think that’s possible but I’ve seen worse manipulations. That’s what being old is all about. I met JoAnn back down the road. And you have to admire her in a way. Here is a real viper. Klaus, the director, who was originally scheduled to discuss the play with Maria is hijacked. He solicitously shields JoAnn from the camera’s invasive attack but forgets and leaves Maria outside the car. She climbs into the limo’s back unnoticed and unaided. She’s almost left behind on the street. Is JoAnn the right actress to play the heartless Sigrid? I’d say so.
In a scene at the movie’s end, Piers Roaldson, a young director played by Brady Corbet, tries to convince Maria to play the lead in his new script. He says he wrote it with her in mind. She thinks it’s too young for her. Is it?
“The character has no age or all ages at one time like all of us. She is out of time, beyond time,” he says.
Assayas wrote the screenplay for Juliette Binoche, known affectionately as La Binoche by her adoring French fans. While working with her on the movie, Summer Hours, she challenged him to write a part about a genuine woman. Assayas tells the story of aging through the eyes of Maria because she is an actress and being an actress, the onus of being young, of being beautiful, is incised into her psyche. For a non-actress like me, like most of us, the passing of youth is bearable. After all, I share aging with all of humanity and it doesn’t matter as much. But, to an aging actress, the desire to maintain youth is equivalent to maintaining relevance.
I think that Assayas wants to force us to look at aging and how it affects viewpoint. He wants the past, the present, and the future to be existent in everything we do at any moment in time. Film has the ability to make history as well as the future feel to us, the moviegoers as if it is palpably present. In real life everything is separate. We don’t have that luxury. But in the pretend world of movies, we can spiral through time at breakneck speed, and visualize the consequence of past actions and see them played out in future time. In movies we can have a God like view of life. In real life we are blinded by the present we live in.