Ageism, Disappearance, and Blurred Lines in Clouds of Sils Maria
by Susan Kouguell
I’m sick of hanging from wires
in front of green screens.
The lines between reality and fiction are blurred and layered in Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, a character study about ageism and mortality.
At the peak of her international career, Maria Enders is asked to perform in a revival of the play that made her famous twenty years ago. But back then she played the role of Sigrid, an alluring young girl who disarms and eventually drives her boss Helena to suicide. Now she is being asked to step into the other role, that of the older Helena. She departs with her assistant to rehearse in Sils Maria; a remote region of the Alps. A young Hollywood starlet with a penchant for scandal is to take on the role of Sigrid, and Maria finds herself on the other side of the mirror, face to face with an ambiguously charming woman who is, in essence, an unsettling reflection of herself. (Synopsis courtesy of Cannes Film Festival)
Now in her 40s, Maria Enders, who has been asked to play the part of Helena on the London stage, finds herself conflicted; she is both terrified and intrigued by the role because it will force her to confront ageism and mortality — the latter underscored by the fact that the actor who originally played Helena died in a car accident.
Maria Enders is very much aware that if she chooses to play the Helena role she might just be tempting fate, as well as her own downfall.
Here we are presented with the question that propels the narrative forward: Despite the various obstacles thrown in her path throughout the film, will Maria Enders play the Helena role on the London stage?
Once Maria accepts the Helena role, she continues to be conflicted by her choice. The narrative stakes rise as Maria prepares the role of Helena with her assistant, Val, who is running lines of the vital young upstart in the play. Their lines literally become blurred: Are they acting lines from the play or is this real life? Taking this idea one step further, life imitates art and art imitates life, when a satirical nod is made to the “real life” dramas (marital infidelities, intrusive paparazzi, and more) these real-life actresses have faced.
Thematically, this film draws some inevitable comparisons to Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve; the psychological and emotional toll and consequences of aging on a successful actress are examined. In All About Eve antagonist Eve Harrington insinuates and schemes her way into the life of Broadway star, Margo Channing (the protagonist) and will stop at nothing to achieve her goal — to become a bigger star than Margo. Introducing herself to Margo as her biggest fan, Eve’s manipulation of Margo’s vanity is calculated; she is duplicitous and has an agenda, and plays on Margo’s fear of getting old. Margo Channing’s biggest vulnerability is age; an aging actress with a younger lover. In Clouds of Sils Maria, Joann Ellis is coy and savvy, and she flatters Maria Enders not so unlike the unscrupulous Eve Harrington. Both Margo Channing and Maria Enders briefly fall into their opponents’ traps, and each discovers that the next generation of stars is ready and armed to take their places. Time marches on with or without them.
Margo expresses her doubts about her age to playwright Lloyd, regarding playing the lead character of Cora, a young ‘twenty-ish’ woman, in his new play:
Lloyd, I am not twenty-ish. I am not thirty-ish.
Three months ago, I was forty years old. Forty.
Four oh – That slipped out. I hadn’t quite made
up my mind to admit it. Now I suddenly feel as
if I’ve taken all my clothes off.
The characters of Maria Enders and Margo Channing are two actresses who will not quietly fade away into actor oblivion. Yet ironically in Act 3, there is one character in Clouds of Sils Maria who does fade away and disappears, never to be seen, heard, or referred to again – – perhaps reinforcing another them of this film — loss. As one character in Clouds of Sils Maria states: “The text is like an object. It’s gonna change perspective based on where you’re standing.”
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