Criterion Month: Killing the Author in ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’

© IFC Films

Authorship, in all its forms and interpretations, is a thematic thread that unites the filmography of Oliver Assayas. His films take place in the margins of society, focusing on individuals who don’t own their stories— rebellious teens, recovering drug addicts, and misunderstood femme fatal’s. Clouds of Sils Maria, his 2014 feature, is a strange entry into his filmography as it is narratively anomalous in terms of subject matter — marginalization, in the conventional sense, is absent here — despite addressing the notions of authorship the most explicitly out of any of his films. Where Assayas’ earlier work seeks to tell unheard stories, Clouds of Sils Maria sees him actively interacting with the notions of the author — whether they even truly exist — and textual ownership — who, if anyone, can say they truly own a text.

From its opening moments, on a shuddering train snaking through the Swiss Alps, the delineating line between what is text what is metatext in Clouds of Sils Maria is being eaten away. Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), along with her assistant Val (Kristen Stewart), is traveling to Zurich where she will accept an award on behalf of the playwright Wilhelm, whom she plans to visit the next day in his secluded alpine home Sils Maria. It is fitting that Maria should accept the award on the reclusive Wilhelm’s behalf as her first acting role was in his play Maloja Snake — named after a famous cloud formation found in Sils Maria.

Maria on the train journey to Zurich © IFC Films

In that initial production, some twenty years ago, Maria played the veracious Sigrid, a young woman who enters into a complicated relationship with an older woman named Helena, whom she is the assistant of. Helena seemingly controls Sigrid, taking advantage of her, only for it to be releveled that the truth was inverse. Sigrid confesses to Helena that she was taking advantage of her to advance her own career and then dumps her. This leads Helena to spiral out of control and the play ends with her disappearing. Helena is widely believed to have committed suicide at the end of the play; however, her fate is unknown and open to interpretation.

During the initial production, Maria and Wilhelm entered into a sexual relationship, not unlike Sigrid and Helena’s. And much in the way Sigrid used Helena, Maria used Wilhelm, propelling herself into a long and critical lauded career while Wilhelm fled to Sils Maria, figuratively disappearing from society. While other actors have played Helena, Maria is the definitive rendition. This is a narrative Maria plays into, maintaining a great deal of ownership over the character of Sigrid. She feels her understanding of the text is greater than anyone else. Her public persona; a mix self-assuredness, vivaciousness, and determination to be in control of her own narrative bears similarities to, and may even be lifted directly from, Sigrid. If Wilhelm is the author of Maloja Snake then Maria is the author of Sigrid. It’s a dynamic Maria finds comfort in — the knowledge that while the world and industry change around her, this one element in her life will remain concrete.

Maria poised like Sigrid © IFC Films

All this is thrown into doubt, however, when Val delivers the news of Wilhelm’s death. She hastily writes “WILHELM’S DEAD” on a scrap of paper and hands it to Maria. It is the transmission of text to the reader in its simplest form. Or perhaps it isn’t. Val is ostensibly the author. Yet it is Wilhelm who died, Wilhelm’s wife who discovered his body, and Maria who knew him best. Is Val the author simply for writing the information down? Or is the notion of authorship in this situation more complex? This is perhaps too much to read into two words hastily scrawled on a scrap of paper and yet it is microcosmic of the question that now poses itself before Maria, the overarching questions woven into the Clouds of Sils Maria: who is the author? Does the author really matter? Or is the author dead?

“Death of the Author”, for those not in the know, is a literary theory first proposed by French literary critic Roland Barthes in his essay of the same name. In the said essay, Barthes argues against the practice of incorporating biographical context and known authorial intent when assessing the meaning and value of a text. In essence, it seeks to strip a text of any meaning that is not directly present on the page (or stage or screen, depending on the medium of choice). For instance, if Death of the Author were applied to the Indiana Jones franchise, we would ignore Steven Spielberg as the director— and thus expunge his Jewish heritage, age, prior and subsequent works from the reading. What we would be left with is a film in which a man of reason faces off against the ultimate rational evil force, Nazi’s, and is only triumphant due to divine intervention, leaving us to locate our own meaning based on those elements.

Maria reconciles with the death of Wilhelm © IFC Films

In the final leg of their journey to Zurich — the award ceremony is now a memorial— Val reads posthumous tribute articles that were hastily written in the hours following the announcement of Wilhelm’s death to Maria. Maria dismisses each article as tokenistic, none of them have a handle on who Wilhelm really was. They see him as a compilation of his output but fail to see the man behind the work. To Maria, you cannot truly understand one without the other. The comments sections under the articles only serve to dishearten Maria further. Many confess that they did not know Wilhelm was still alive — an author only exists while their output is ongoing— others said they did not know who he was — they knew his work but not his name. Each response threatens Maria’s own internal sense of value and self— that conflation of auteur theory and ownership over a text that lands her in the paradoxical place of both having fealty to the author while also feeling her investment, by its sheer magnitude, indebts others to view her as an author by proximity.

Since Clouds of Sils Maria’s release in 2015 (or 2014, if you were lucky enough to see it during its festival run) notions ownership and authorship have become increasingly murky and contested, especially in online discourse. Take for instance fandom culture, where fans often engage with creators, make fan theories, form subcultures, and become possessive over a given property to a point that the intensity of their ‘fandom’ can influence the writing of the text making them, arguably, authors by proxy.  A recent example of this is season 8 of Game of Thrones.

Val (left) and Maria (right) flee the public to Sils Maria © IFC Films

Showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have openly admitted that they were influenced by online fan culture when writing the season 8. Many fans on Reddit correctly guessed planned character arcs and plot twists, so to keep the show exciting many of these were changed or abandoned completely, leading surprising but narratively unfulfilling moments like Arya killing the Night King. Meanwhile, other moments were included for fan service, despite often being narratively inert, the Cleganebowl showdown in episode 5 is the most notable of these. None of this is said as a critique of either the showrunners or fans, but rather to illustrate the contentiousness of authorship. Is it Benioff and Weiss’ responsibility to kill the audience as an authorial influence in their writing? Or is it the audience’s responsibility to kill Benioff and Weiss in their viewing? And when either party is unhappy with the final season, which the author is at fault?

Maria reads as a cipher for the kind of online superfan that prowls Reddit and Twitter. The way she dismisses the interpretations of others and elevates her own opinion — often over that of Wilhelm himself — parallels with the kind of fan who keeps Star Wars: The Last Jedi alive as a talking point long after it should have dropped off the pop-culture radar. Assayas leans into these comparison’s, Maria’s early performances — presumably in the late 90s and early 2000s — are comprised mostly of blockbuster roles and she has since shifted into more prestigious work. Maria wants to talk about her recent work, but everyone she meets asks her about her blockbuster days— what projects did she like working on, which roles are her favorite, her thoughts on Harrison Ford as a co-star. The roles control Maria more than she does the roles, people are interested in her as an extension of her work, they are keeping her alive as an author as long as she continues to heighten the value of the text. The moment she stops she is no longer relevant.

Val (left) and Maria (right) at the movies © IFC Films

At Wilhelm’s memorial Maria is approached by hot-shot director Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger). He says that he is planning to stage a modern rendition of Maloja Snake and wants Maria for the role of Helena. At first, Maria is reticent, in her mind she is Sigrid and does not feel fit to play Helena. Klaus rebuts that this is not the case, “Sigrid and Helena are one and the same person”. Maria disagrees with Klaus’ interpretation but accepts the role none the less; better to be associated with the production and keep Wilhelm alive than to not. To prepare she and Val travel to Wilhelm’s house, Sils Maria, in the Alps where they spend the majority of the movie traveling to different locales around the mountain and running lines while the new production of Maloja Snake coalesces.

Klaus’ assertion of Helena and Sigrid’s similarities become an internalized point of tension for Maria. “I’m Sigrid”, she insists, using the refrain as a crutch whenever she finds Helena too difficult or too easy to inhabit. Val attempts to comfort Maria by offering takes on the text, Helena is not disempowered or weak but misled. When she leaves the stage at the end of the play her fate is unknown, she could capitulate and take her life, or she could be reborn. This is little comfort to Maria, the world is changing around her — they are no longer interested in the movies she makes, in the authors that made her career. In Maria’s mind playing Helena is synonymous her social currency devaluing; she is being usurped in the role she defined, being relegated the play the object that must be overcome.

Maria (left) and Klaus (right) discuss Sigrid and Helena © IFC Films

Maria is only troubled further by the introduction of the new Sigrid, a young up and coming actress named Jo-Ann (Chloë Grace Moretz). Where Maria is steeped in text and author Jo-Ann is authorless. She is the kind of star that tabloids gorge on. Her antics keep her on the news — drunk driving, breaking up a marriage — and in her interview about landing the role of Sigrid she is disaffected, getting basic information about the play and Wilhelm entirely wrong. Where Maria was authored by Wilhelm, blazing into fame on the back of his work, Jo-Ann lets herself become the text.

Maria and Val go to the cinema to see a superhero flick that Jo-Ann stars in. It is perfect for Jo-Ann as she is not an actor in the text, but rather vice-versa. The film bends to her, becoming a part of the Jo-Ann persona, much in the same way that any Marvel Cinematic Universe movie is an extension of the Robert Downey Jr person. Afterward, Maria and Val debate the virtues of the film. Maria is dismissive out of hand, it is by-the-numbers superhero fluff, Jo-Ann speaks in exposition, and the shot composition is flat and unchallenging. Val returns that this is not necessarily a bad thing. She finds power in the way Jo-Ann’s character is depicted. When Maria tries to contend this point Val cuts her off, “There’s no less truth in a seemingly darker film”. She is not saying that Maria is wrong as much as there is more than just her perspective, both women can be right in this situation, one truth need not exist at the expense of the other.

Jo-Ann in hero superhero film © IFC Films

Assayas takes his time laying out all these pieces; showing us Maria, Val, and Sigrid; their conflicting views; dead authors; singular interpretations posed against a multiplicity of interpretation; being reliant on text versus being the text. The question that lingers is why? What purpose does it serve director whose filmography relies on both taking authorship of ceding authorship to the stories of the unheard minority to make this film?

The answer to that question lies in the relationship between Maria and Val. The two women get along and are extremely close. There are hints at a romantic entanglement, but these are never confirmed. Their relationship closely resembles that of Helena and Sigrid, so much so that when they run lines — Maria as Helena, Val as Sigrid — it often becomes difficult to tell where the text ends and the people begin. The script and the women blur together, the text shaping around the women, the words an object that serves more as a reflection of time and place than an entity unto itself. Maria was Sigrid, Val is Sigrid, Jo-Ann becomes Sigrid, each woman brings a different energy and meaning to the character. A new author lives and dies with each rendition.

Maria (left) and Val (right) run lines © IFC Films

A tension exists between Maria and Val. They often take breaks from the rehearsals to debate the text. Maria is more wizened, and often runs circles around the inexperienced Val, leaving her feeling self-conscious and inadequate. Val, however, is more in touch with the real world, pop-culture, and trends. This serves to highlight Maria’s age, reinforcing the feeling that the world is moving on without her, and her value is decreasing. The greatest point of tension remains is the plays ending. Maria adamantly believes Helena kills herself, and that belief makes her detest the character, preventing her from fully inhabiting her as a performer. Val refrains that the ending is ambiguous, anything could have happened to her.

This point comes to a head one morning when Maria and Val set out to see the Maloja Snake cloud formation for themselves. As they clamber across mountainous slopes they begin to argue, and the following exchange occurs:

“Maria: I spent all night thinking about Helena’s death?

Val: Her death? She doesn’t necessarily die. She disappears.

Maria: That’s your interpretation.

Val: It’s pretty ambiguous.

Maria: I don’t know why you’re so dead set on making this play say the opposite of what it was meant to say.

Val: At twenty, you saw Sigrid’s ambition and you saw her violence because you felt it in yourself.

Maria: So?

Val: So that’s what I’m saying. The text is an object. It’s going to change perspective based on where you’re standing.”

As they hike Val slowly exits the frame. The next shot is Maria alone, she climbs over the final slope and comes to rest at a vantage point overlooking the Maloja valley. Maria points out to the cloud formation, saying “No it’s not the snake. Oh Yes! I think it’s turning into the snake.” She goes to ask Val her thoughts only to realize that Val is gone.

Maria realizes Val is gone © IFC Films

As Maria searches for Val we cut to the Maloja Snake. Maria was right in her assessment that it both is and isn’t a snake. The winding clouds certainly resemble the reptile, but they could just as easily resemble water, rope, or a vine, it all depends on your perspective. Similarly, until now Val has been Sigrid, but as she disappears never to be seen again, she becomes Helena. Val was Sigrid for a time, now in the wake of her disappearance Maria is Sigrid again, and once the production begins Jo-Ann will become Sigrid.

Val’s disappearance serves as the ultimate disproval of Maria’s belief that Helena dies. She sacrifices her job, their friendship/relationship (again, depends on perspective) to prove her point. Maria knows that Val is still out there, working somewhere else for someone else, just like Helena could be too.

Maria as Helena © IFC Films

In this way, Clouds of Sils Maria forms an ultimate thesis of Assayas as a filmmaker and an outward-looking critique of the culture. Every story is an object and we can only view it through the refraction of time and place that is the now. To build personas based on a text is futile, to be an author is futile because the author is inevitably killed, whether it is the literal author or the author that is culture. His concern with telling unheard stories is simply to offer a new object to view. The minorities in his films may not be minorities forever, the value we find now may be worthless later. Clouds of Sils Maria proposes that the author is a phoenix, destined to die and be reborn in the cycle of cultural evaluation and re-evaluation. Just because Game of Thrones is disliked now does not mean that time won’t be more favorable. This is Assayas’ encouragement to remain open, to view a text with fresh eyes each time you approach it, to listen to what it is saying now.

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