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Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)

CRUMBLIES… 4 crumblies

Now, here’s an odd film. It has a brutal message for those marching through their middle years, not least the inevitability of replacement and the unremitting nature of time. Like a snake of clouds, charging its way through a funnel of mountains, time gets to us, runs over us, forgets us. Such is the lesson for Juliette Binoche as Maria Enders in Clouds of Sils Maria

Which is a real place, by the way, and the stunning (mark me, stunning!) location of this film from writer-director Olivier Assayas. The place is in eastern Switzerland, the Canton of Graubünden, and marked by gorgeous mountain ranges, peaceful and terrifying heights, and the ancient affections of Nietzsche, Einstein and other thinkers. When the weather is right, cloud travels through the peaks and becomes the Maloja Snake…

To the film: Binoche is an actress on a train. She is with her Personal Assistant (Kristen Stewart as Valentine) to celebrate the work of the man who wrote the play (also the Maloja Snake) that made her famous, but discovers he is dead. This early part of the film lets us get to know Maria and Valentine: naturalistic performances both, people as friends with a sniff of employee and employer. They hit Zürich and the celebration becomes a professional wake and the lesson of the film pops up as Maria meets the director of a new staging of Maloja Snake. She is persuaded to take part: where once she was the young heroine pursued, now she is to be the older woman in the relationship.

Oh yes. It’s that moment in working life where you are no longer the teacher of the young. Oh no – this is about the humiliation and loss of power that comes from being subservient to them. And worse, as the things plays out, ignored by them. Who’d be wise under those circumstances, eh? Old Jack here tried the first time a catheter went in, but, jeez, it wasn’t easy.

But that’s to jump to the ending. The meat of the film is in the relationship between Maria and Valentine as the former works her lines on the mountains and the latter helps. There’s an underlying tension in the relationship: Valentine represents the young, modern, drably vapid but somehow fascinating. She is the deliverer of painful context to Maria. Valentine loves the work of the new young star of the play, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz – who seems more layered than the script wants her to be) and fights for the younger of the two women in the play. Binoche’s Maria has long grown out of that perspective and is unwilling to give up the psychological power in real life or in the play.

Now – look – old Jack can be a pretentious fucker at the best of times. Since Mrs Jack left the planet, I’ve had nothing to stop me snobbing up around art, wine or films. So…indulge me with the indulgences of this film. Because I really really liked most of it, and the ambiguity most of all. For as Maria and Valentine bounce around the house on the mountain, and take regular walks through the wonderful scenery, confusion reigns. The dialogue repeatedly tricks the audience. Are Maria and Valentine rowing, or is it just the characters they are reading? Old Jack was hoodwinked several times (as intended), but liked the film more for getting me again.

Binoche and Stewart are terrific, convincing, natural and…yeah, let’s go with interesting. They make Maria and Valentine actually, practically interesting. And I mean that as a proper compliment given they were fending off the scenery of the Gods and a reductive analogy for life shown in actors’ careers. Classy acts.

This film won’t be for everyone. Give old Jack three beers and a yearning for comedy and Clouds of Sils Maria wouldn’t be for me. I’d be like Valentine, driving so fast around a ton of bendy mountain roads that I’d get out for a quality vomit. But pick the right day and this is a great film – albeit flawed. There’s a scene on a space-ship written with ignorance and disrespect for the form, but it buys us whole minutes of Binoche guffawing. This alone makes the film a good companion while it delivers it toll of personal doom…

For, yup, we will all be overridden, by-passed and abandoned by life. Deal with it with good grace and holiday up mountains. For nature is so much more beautiful than the pettiness of human existence. As I said to Mad Maud when she wanted her Quality Street back.

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