Assayas: Clouds of Sils Maria

I’ve seen Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria a few times now, and with each viewing I find myself asking the same question: Does Kristen Stewart’s character exist?

If I have to ask, the one thing I’m certain of is that I’m not meant to know. Everything about this 2015 gem of a film is surreal, leaving us to question our reality, the veracity of our experience. En route to giving tribute to her friend and the playwright who catapulted her character (aptly named Maria) to superstardom, Juliette Binoche learns from her assistant (Stewart) that the playwright has died. Catapulted into grief, she then throws herself into a revival of the author’s play that made her career, this time playing the older woman on the other side of the proverbial table. She moves into his house in Sils Maria to prepare the role, with Stewart being the main character she interacts with for the bulk of the film.

Then, at one point they hike to a summit to watch the eponymous clouds of this area, which snake around the Swiss Alps in a mist that is almost Brigadoon-ian. Time-stopping. Transporting. Having waited to spy this over the course of the film, Binoche turns to Stewart, only to find that she has disappeared. In the next scene, back in London for the opening of the play, she has a new assistant.

So, given what little interaction Stewart has with anyone but Binoche, is she real? Or is she a figment of Binoche’s imagination? Is she projecting Stewart’s persona (which in some ways looks like a young Juliette Binoche) onto her other assistant?

Clouds of Sils Maria isn’t the story of one woman’s recovery from grief. While Binoche smiles at the end (indeed, throughout the film), it's not the bow on a neatly-wrapped sense of closure. Grief isn’t a ladder of stages, but a spiral. It's in these crises that we often realize more acutely than in the day-to-day how responsible we are for ourselves, for our well-being, and for our happiness.

My personal view of Clouds of Sils Maria is in line with this notion. We don’t get assistants for our life, people who can take the burdens off of our shoulders and run with them. Sure, we have support, but ultimately the airline industry has the right idea: We are the ones that have to put on our own masks before helping others. Perhaps this is what Assayas is saying in the disappearance of Stewart. Real or not, we’re ultimately alone with ourselves at the end of the day.

Today’s Contemplation: Can you remember a time when you placed the burden of responsibility for your #currentmood onto someone else? Perhaps it was a boss, an ex, a current partner, or a parent. In examining the situation, and examining your emotions around it, can you extract your emotions from the events that triggered them? And can you take care of yourself in these instances? Can you sit with the emotion, honor it, and let it run its course? Focusing on this, does the storyline matter? Focusing on yourself, is it possible to let others off the hook?