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Clouds of Sils Maria – A Cloudy Subject

Clouds Of Sils Maria

Juliette Binoche & Kristin Stewart
© Sundance Selects

The 68th Cannes Film Festival began Thursday, and one of the topics being debated is the “dearth of female filmmakers,” which points to the larger disparity between men and women in movies in general.

Eternal beauty Catherine Deneuve received the same admonishment from the press that Renée Zellweger recently received for their abortive attempts to preserve the beauty that propelled their careers.

Clouds Of Sils Maria

© Samir Hussein
Wire Image

Charlie Hebdo’s cruel cover described her as “a suspicious package on the Croisette (the main drag in Cannes).”

Clouds Of Sils Maria

Suspect package on the Croisette! False alarm! It’s Catherine Deneuve!

She pre-empted her detractors by historically declaring, “There are no longer any stars.

“Being a star entails glamour and secrecy. You have to keep something of yourself; you shouldn’t display everything of your private life. You see so many images, it’s hard to keep any degree of mystery.”

I bring up the subject of Mme Deneuve and the aforementioned debate because it was only a year ago, at last year’s festival, that the female-centric Clouds was shown out of competition.

Equally inglorious is the fact that this discussion is intended to be taken seriously concurrent with the Cannes Market, a separate entity that takes place alongside the festival.

The Cannes Market is the backroom where all the real business takes place. That business is the buying and selling of movies, non-prestige movies that follow the bimbo-hero formula and are all about the euro.

Sadly, the acclaim that has been given Clouds Of Sils Maria seems to me to be superficial. The movie has three strong female characters, but that fact alone obfuscates its quality as a whole, and not in a good way.

Here is the movie’s summary from the Internet Movie Database:

A veteran actress comes face-to-face with an uncomfortable reflection of herself when she agrees to take part in a revival of the play that launched her career 20 years earlier.

Maria (Juliette Binoche) is the aging actress; the uncomfortable reflection is from two younger women: her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) and the hottest star of the moment, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz). Smart counter-casting.

Clouds has often been mentioned along with the less successful Maps To The Stars, a movie that is in fact about an aging actress struggling with the loss of her youth and success.

This kind of simpistic reduction is typical of American moviegoers and critics. Our fast-food culture doesn’t allow for reflection and nuance.

Donc, it seems to me that most reviewers failed to notice what the movie was really about.

The protagonist Maria is no diva à la Map’s Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a pill-addled, histrionic diva.

Maria does have some personal drama; she is in the midst of a divorce. When her husband’s lawyer calls, we see “Creep’s lawyer” illuminated on her phone. Maria excuses herself, away from her personal assistant, to have the unpleasant conversation.

I would think the kind of character we are intended to believe Maria to be would demand the assistant leave while Maria would make sure everyone on the train could overhear her conversation.

The film’s French director, Olivier Assayas seems a little confused himself as to what his “emphatically not …complex film” is about.

“It’s so much what actors are about. They’re always on two different layers, one layer is the person they are when that have to do a red carpet of introduce this or that or present their movies ..and they’re sponsored by fashion brands. It’s not the same person, it’s two different people. …it’s how all actors function in one way or another.”

Yes this quote is hard to read, and I imagine M. Assayas was squirming as the comic-book centric interviewer wass bringing up Binoche’s unrelated role in Godzilla and his pressurring Assayas to direct a comic-book movie.

I included this excerpt because I think it’s interesting that Assayas omitted mentioning that Clouds is itself sponsored by a fashion brand, the prestigious house of Chanel.

Their assistance allowed him “to fulfill his dream of shooting the movie on 35-mm film instead of digitally.” 

There is also conspicuous product placement for Chanel, their first foray into film production.

It may or may not be a coincidence that Kristen Stewart (who became the first American actress to win a César for her role in this movie) is a current brand ambassador for Chanel.

Clouds Of Sils Maria

Kristen Stewart for Chanel©

(Juliette Binoche has shilled for scents made by Lancôme.)

Clouds Of Sils Maria

© Lancôme

Maria, it turns out, is a consummate professional who takes her career seriously. She has angoisse from dealing with her character and issues related to the production of the play, not from her own public image as an “aging actress.”

What the movie is truly about is revealed in a moment early in the movie, not long after the phone call from the lawyer.

Maria asks Val how to do something on Google and blows her lips in frustration as she fails to easily grasp the task. Her disgruntlement is about her inability to keep up with the times, possibly tinged with some melancholy for simpler days.

Maria has been asked to reprise a role in the work that made her famous. The role is that of the older female character, not the ingenue that made her famous. She reluctantly takes the role to honor the writer, the man responsible for her career.  She and Val go to the mountains to prepare.

Assayas intends to confuse the audience as to whether their dialogue is real or are lines from the play; they could apply to either. It’s well done, but ultimately feels like a contrived gimmick.

Maria feels uncomfortable taking on the role of the older woman, partly not wanting to eclipse the memory of the late actress who had created the role, but mostly because she identifies so closely with the younger character that she created.

Her malaise reaches reaches its apogee when Maria researches her co-star on YouTube.

Jo-Ann Ellis has been classically trained, but her career ascension is the result of her Lindsay Lohan-like off-screen antics.

That the world today has YouTube and TMZs to capture and disseminate her tantrums is what upends Maria. What kind of world allows someone like her to be famous?

Her poor behavior has no negative consequences,on the contrary, it makes her famous.

Some of her actions are rather aggressive, which understandably scares Maria. After a night spent on YouTube, she wants to withdraw from the play. Working with Jo-Ann is a terrifying prospect.

Val is not scared of Maria. Au contraire, she’s a fan. Her simple acceptance of Jo-Ann vexes Maria. The issue is not that Maria is an “older actress.” It’s that she came of age as part of a different generation.

That the two are isolated in the mountains exacerbates the generation gap.


Do not read further if you plan to see the movie.


Hélas, Maria’s agent cannot get her out of her commitment to do the play.

During a rehearsal, Maria gives Jo-Ann what actors call “a note;” it is constructive criticism normally given by the director to actors, but it is not out of place for a veteran actress such as Maria to offer a note to a neophyte.

Jo-Ann takes great offense and rudely refuses to allow Maria’s character an extra beat to think onstage.

I think Jo-Ann interpreted the note as insubordination from “aging-actress” Maria, rather than an improvement to the story as a whole which would be of benefit to both actresses.

Maria, consistent with her professionalism, accepts Jo-Ann’s refusal. Her dejection should not be interpreted as a sign her star is on the decline, as I surmise many have.

This conflict certainly doesn’t augment Maria’s enthusiasm for the play. Understandably, she’s not eager to meet an ardent fan and young director who wants to pitch her a project.

She dutifully obliges, not realizing that his visit will impart the peaceful understanding she needs to get through this experience.

After his pitch, she demurs that she is too old for the part. Jo-Ann would be a more appropriate choice.

The twenty-five year old director disagrees; she is not too old. She is “every age at once.”

He doesn’t feel comfortable living in at this particular moment in civilization.

It’s an era of internet scandals that propel actresses like Jo-Ann to the highest echelon of fame and acclaim, an change he resents.

None of us choose the era in which we live.

Many of use may not feel that there is anything to be gained by expressing this discomfort; those who do are called Steampunks.

Thus, Maria is not the only one feeling out of step with the pace of change, the necessity to own and know how to use its requisite iaccoutrements.

The contented smile on Maria’s face in the last shot of the movie is an expression that is greater than the compliment from the director. It is one of gratitude.

She is grateful to have achieved success during a simpler time. She is grateful she had a mentor. She is grateful to know that she is going to be okay.

Jo-Ann is not in Maria’s league. She may be on fire now, but fires burn out.

As Quentin Tarantino said in the May 15th, 2015 issue of Entertainment Weekly:

“Hollywood has changed a whole lot, and if I had to change with it, I wouldn’t even make it to 60.” 





This site was borne of my passion for movies, particularly French films. I have spent time in France and am fluent in the language, hence the “le”. The “snob” part, while of French origin, is not meant to intimidate, but rather an effort to reclaim the word from the pretentious, just as the gay community has done with the word “queer.” We’re all snobs; we all like what we like.

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