Damage Looms in the 'Clouds of Sils Maria'

Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) lives in rare air. She is an accomplished actress on both stage and screen, beautiful and recognizable by those within the industry — the power players who matter most, especially when it comes to casting.

click to enlarge Clouds of Sils Maria
Clouds of Sils Maria

Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) lives in rare air. She is an accomplished actress on both stage and screen, beautiful and recognizable by those within the industry — the power players who matter most, especially when it comes to casting. This means she doesn’t have to audition; producers and directors seek her out. They come to bow before her regal grace, to petition her to appear in their projects. Maria is that rarest of rare birds — the diva in full bloom.

Of course, that term immediately calls to mind the negative connotations — the spoiled superstar, the selfish and self-absorbed personality, the raging insecurities — and to be fair, some of that exists in Maria. She is certainly used to having people cater to her needs, her merest wants or desires take life and flight as soon as they are mentioned. Maria Enders is a brand name, a cottage industry that must be maintained, which requires constant attention and a willingness to do so at the expense of almost anyone else. And, on top of all that, the truth is Maria happens to be an actress with one foot on the downslide and the other lifting off the foundation. Maria is aging.

That sounds so tragic and far too dire because, in truth, Maria Enders is just coming up on the doorstep of what we might call middle age. But in the world of performance, the unfair realm that it is, Maria is now being offered different kinds of role — next phase roles. No longer is she first in line for the commanding lead (the sexy siren, the ravishing heroine). Now, she is seen as the older mentor who will usher in the new It Girl, teach her the ways of the game and step aside (or be put out to pasture) so that the pretty young thing can take over.

This is exactly the dilemma facing Maria. A hot young directing talent earns the right to helm the revival of the play that introduced Maria to the world. But now, instead of assuming the role that made her famous, Maria must settle for the secondary part and watch as Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), the rising star from a comic book franchise, attempts to make her own crossover dreams come true. Maria sees little of herself in Jo-Ann, a seemingly vapid and girlish presence with no sense of herself, history or the craft, as far as Maria can tell.

It doesn’t help that at the very moment this opportunity presents itself, Maria must also deal with the loss of her own creative mentor and former lover, the Svengali who guided her through her breakthrough performance.

Maria would be at a supreme loss and all alone if not for Valentine (Kristen Stewart), her wise and devoted assistant, another young woman with potential looking to Maria as a guide of sorts.

Clouds of Sils Maria maintains a rather precarious balancing act, as a hall of mirrors full of refractions and reflections of women imprisoned in an existential box with no way out. And the perspective shifts for the audience from the characters to the actresses who, we can’t ignore, find themselves in similar situations. How fascinating it must be for Binoche — as the beauty who captivated us at the start of her career in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (opposite Daniel Day-Lewis and Lena Olin) and as the tragic ingénue who came between a father and son in Damage, won an Academy Award for The English Patient (Supporting Actress) and was nominated again for her leading role in Chocolat — to now fight the good fight to be seen as a meaningful female performer in films like Clouds of Sils Maria and 1,000 Times Good Night, while Stewart and Moretz nip at her heels.

Pushing that consideration a step further, what would it be like for Binoche to slide into the Lena Olin role in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, while Stewart (the first American actress to claim a César — the French equivalent of an Academy Award — for her supporting turn in Clouds of Sils Maria) saddled up next to the male lead (say, Michael Fassbender)? Or how would Binoche feel about watching Scarlett Johansson steal her fire in a Damage remake? Based on her work in Clouds of Sils Maria, she makes it perfectly clear that she’s not ready to go gently into the long dark night.

Binoche and writer-director Olivier Assayas (having recently collaborated together on Summer Hours) fearlessly tackle the plight that she and Maria Enders share, stripping away the glamorous covers and turning on the harsh lights to expose the reality that the earlier beauty and talent still remains, transformed into something that audiences need to be willing to adjust to in order to push the industry to present more intimately adult performers and narratives for consumption. (Opens Friday at Mariemont Theatre) (R) Grade: A-

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