Clouds of Sils Maria – quietly exploring issues of ageism and gender equality in cinema.

Clouds of Sils Maria is a French produced, largely English language film about a forty plus film actress and the issues she has with getting older. It’s a deeply relevant story as more and more stories are coming out about sexism in the movie industry including the one about Maggie Gyllenhaal, who at 37 was told she was too old for a romantic role opposite a 55 year old man. Clearly it is not news that this kind of stuff is going on but it is great that it actually is news because for decades it would have been universally acceptable. It is clearly terrible that such chauvinism still exists but the fact that Hollywood is finally getting called out on it is a step forward.
Clouds of Sils Maria has done well on the festival circuit earning a nomination for the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year and a best supporting actress win at the Césars for Kristen Stewart, which is the first time an American performer has got the award. Now it has been released in the UK with very little fanfare but it is worth searching out in cinemas and on demand. Juliette Binoche, who takes the lead, revealed in an interview that she took her role in Godzilla just so that she could believably deliver a line in this film about acting in blockbusters. This is great as it means something good has finally come from that movie. 
Clearly the idea of exploring the notion and psychology of ageing and the fear of successful females who think they are being replaced by younger women is not totally new. It is the thing that fuelled the Vain Sorceress trope in a dozen fairy tales and it is a recurring plot theme in many cheesy American soaps. It feels like is is being dealt with in a more honest way here though. Binoche’s Maria is not an evil schemer prepared to go to any lengths to stay beautiful, she is simply an older woman, comfortable with her age and her looks but working in the reality of an industry that may not present the same opportunities for her as it once did.  
The story revolves around the revival of a famous play that Maria starred in during its original run. The play is some kind of two hander between an older woman, Helena, and a destructive girl, Sigrid, who she employed and was involved with. Of course Maria had previously played the younger role but now twenty years later she accepts the part of the weaker, more fragile Helena and she has trouble coming to terms with the part. She was far happier when she was Sigrid.
There are clear parallels between the play within the film and the narrative playing out on screen. Maria has a twenty something female assistant, the role played by Stewart, who she clearly has a close relationship with herself and when the two of them rehearse lines from the play it is initially and deliberately not clear whether it is them talking or the fictional characters. At these times the film takes on a slight level of artifice but it manages to retain the sense of realism that runs throughout. Interestingly though there is another layer to this because there are also comparisons between these women and the actors playing them. Obviously Binoche is herself a middle aged actor and the initial idea for the movie was apparently hers. She pitched it to director, Oliver Assayas, and he wrote it for her. There is also Stewart though who has a speech about young Hollywood stars who find great fame and popularity off the back of fantasy films and end up as the focus of internet gossip becoming web created celebrities. Stewart, of course, was the star of the Twilight vampire films and had her own brush with the tabloid media when she was allegedly unfaithful to partner and costar Robert Pattinson with the director of her next big project; Snow White and the Huntsman. (Snow White no less, the original youth obsessed evil witch story and that version really played up this theme.) Her casting is as significant and knowing as Julia Roberts’ in Notting Hill and it shows an awareness and conscious direction in the 25 year old’s career. With this film and Still Alice, Kristen Stewart is showing herself as a wise and very skilled actor and this could well become the second phase in a varied and celebrated filmography. 
All in all, Clouds of Sils Maria, named after a particularly symbolic meteorological phenomenon that only occurs above one small lake town in the Swiss Alps, has simple ideas that it executes perfectly. There are different readings of the film to be made with possible elements of fantasy if you wish to see it that way and it is another example of the excellent cinema coming out of northern Europe. It has important things to say about issues of ageism and gender equality but it chooses not to shout them and it is all the better for it.

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