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Clouds of Sils Maria

Clouds of Sils Maria

Although Clouds of Sils Maria was widely reviewed, I was continually disappointed that none of the reviews really explained in any depth at all what I was seeing on the screen. So I viewed the film —and related films— several times, extracted small stray fragments from many different reviews, and combined all of that into the following.

While the original fragments were often stray comments elsewhere, their collection and synthesis is my own (in fact the original sources would sometimes disagree with the frame in which I have placed their fragment).

I will generally use the acronym CoSM in place of the movie's full title Clouds of Sils Maria; hopefully not repeating the full movie title over and over will make these sentences a little less awkward. (Sils-Maria is a tiny town in Switzerland. The Maloja Snake is the colloquial name for a very unusual cloud formation in that area that occurs rarely. Although very beautiful and impressive at the time it's occurring, the cloud formation is generally a warning that bad weather is coming later.)

Because the overall structure of CoSM includes not only itself but also both a play-within-the-film and a film-within-the film, and because CoSM blurs its relation with real life too, names abound. This can be about as confusing as trying to follow an old Russian novel, so I'm supplying a cheat sheet here in hopes you'll at least know which name refers to what. The play-within-the-film is called The Maloja Snake and has two principal characters: Sigrid and Helena. In the film CoSM the two characters Val (Valentine) and Maria Enders, who have the most screen time, prepare for this play (Maria will play Helena; she played Sigrid twenty years before). The other two principal characters in CoSM are Jo-Ann Ellis (who will play Sigrid in the revival of The Maloja Snake) and Klaus Diesterweg (the director [and producer?] of the revival. The character of the personal assistant Val is played by the actress Kristen Stewart, the character of the older famous actress Maria by Juliette Binoche, the character of the rebellious young actress Jo-Ann by Chloë Grace Moretz, and the character of the stage director Klaus by Lars Eidinger.

Even though the settings move around a whole lot, CoSM has something of a stage play feel to it, perhaps because of the very heavy interaction between a small number of characters, à la Sleuth. Or perhaps it's because of the very extensive dialog, à la My Dinner with Andre.

The armature of CoSM is the parallel between the film life of the characters and the play-within-the-film they're preparing for. In both cases the older character (in CoSM the actress Maria Enders, in the play Helena) is aging professionally, encountering some difficulties, has bouts of low self-confidence, and becomes attracted to a much younger woman, at least partly in a sexual way. In both cases the younger character (in CoSM the personal assistant Val, in the play Sigrid) is quite young, is just entering professional life and has not determined a direction yet, takes the older woman's attraction (and all the rest of life) less seriously, and ultimately completely leaves rather abruptly. (As a further complication, there may be even more obsession with age than the situation actually warrants.)

The film and the play-within-the-film are not identical though. Just a few examples of the many interesting ways they differ: In the play there are only the two people, while in CoSM there's also a young actress, a stage director, and several subplots (one of them around a spurned wife). In the play the sexual attraction grows into a full-blown lesbian affair, while in CoSM it doesn't go much of anywhere. In the play Sigrid and Helena are two completely separate individuals, whereas in CoSM Maria Enders is a bit of both, preparing to play Helena now and having played Sigrid twenty years earlier.

Despite what the marketing campaign said and most reviewers said, and despite the common wisdom, the incipient lesbianism in CoSM is in fact quite subtle. Since the sexual attraction never comes to any sort of fruition (in fact it seems possible Val never even notices it:-), there are no explicit or daring scenes of any sort. The most obvious allusion to lesbianism is the butch style (both hair and clothing) Maria adopts in the second part of the film. (That butch style contrasts with Maria's earlier statement And it has nothing to do with being a lesbian, by the way. I've always been straight..) In the Epilog in London there's possibly another allusion in the style of the replacement personal assistant. And beyond that, there are a few specific scenes in CoSM that are easily interpreted as sexual or lesbian references: the swim in the lake with Val's granny underpants and the markedly unequal nakedness (if it was even intentional), Maria's secret running to catch a last glimpse of Val driving away to Lake Como, Val's disturbed reverie during her early morning drive back from Lake Como, and Maria viewing the sleeping thong-wearing Val through a cracked door (the butt scene).


The film is very postmodern. Discussions of different interpretations of The Maloja Snake (and by inference CoSM itself) by Val, Klaus Diesterweg, Henryk Wald, and Maria Enders make the point over and over that the same text can be presented different ways. Val even explicitly says The text is like an object. It's going to change perspective depending on where you're standing.. A similar idea of variable and blurry interpretations is perhaps most plainly stated in the epilog in the interview dialog between Klaus and the reporter, where it's suggested that what audiences really see is some mixture of what's actually on the stage in front of them and what the tabloid headlines are saying outside the theater. And the very last scene of CoSM speaks of disliking modernity, and even of characters being outside of time, the reverse of what the whole rest of the movie has been showing us. By contradicting everything we've seen so far, it implicitly criticizes Maria for caring too much about her age and not sticking to her guns.

Here are several different specifics, each pointing to CoSM's postmodernism:

Sundry Observations

CoSM is known for the high quality of the acting (and the good chemistry between the actresses), and for the intricacy and ambiguity (even complexity) of the story. It also has excellent unobtrusive use of music, much of which is non-diegetic but some of which is produced by performances within the frame of the film itself. The music is mostly classical, even using the old popular standard Pachelbel's Canon at a couple significant moments. The one bit of music that's quite different is what plays on Val's earbuds as she drives back from Lake Como - it further emphasizes the divergence of her age and interests from Maria's. And CoSM hews to today's highest standards of careful writing. For example a product placement scene for Chanel (one of the investors), which could easily have been a klunky interruption of the flow, is blended into the story so well that we hardly notice it.

There are also several subtle sub-strands which add to the complexity. For example there's a sub-strand about suicide (and not just plain suicides, but also ambiguous ones and secret ones), discussed by characters with very different points of view owing to the very different facts they're aware of. Over and over for different characters there's a blurring between suicide and leaving. And maybe the fact that the place where Wilhelm Melchoir died is the same place where Maria Enders views the Maloja Snake has some deeper meaning. (Even the camera angle is pretty much the same when Maria hikes there with Rosa and later when she again hikes there with Val; we see both pairs of people momentarily drop out of view as the trail drops down through the same ravine.) And there's a sub-strand about Maria's need for money (discussion about her divorce being more difficult than necessary because she hasn't got enough cash; Val's sotto voce comment after the conversation about Klaus paying well; maybe even theft [when Henryk Wald takes her hand in the car in Zurich, the bracelet Maria is wearing looks a lot like the elegant and presumably expensive one from the Chanel shoot].)

CoSM highlights the ubiquity of technology and its connections to the cult of celebrity. We see people juggling multiple smartphones and operating them with their thumbs, picking up the latest gossip from social media, consulting maps on a tablet computer, using a GPS in the car for directions, checking out each other's photos on the Internet, and so forth. The paparazzi are a constant presence (at one point referred to as cockroaches:-), chasing down people on their motorcycles and even more or less stalking people. And the interaction between what the paparazzi want pictures of and what's being said on social media is a constant subject of comment and discussion.

The realism of CoSM stands out. It's made to seem unremarkable that Val has two cellphones, a primary one that's rather new, and also a backup a Blackberry. And her tablet's home screen is the sort of inside joke a heavy technology user might have: a faux cracked screen. And the mocked-up photos and videos look like the real thing; for example the video clips of Jo-Ann's fits look just like many other candid videos: inadequate light, poorly framed, starting and ending at inopportune times, and often very shaky. The audio details are quite exact, for example the soundtrack includes not just the dialog but also many subtle scene-setters, such as hearing faint cowbells when we see a Swiss Chalet in the daytime. The visual details are there too, for example we know the cars really use gasoline because of the scene in the gas station. The scenes with paparazzi likely rely on real photographic equipment, as single-step shows the flashes of light appear and then disappear within the time of a single frame (1/24 second), which is too sudden and too brief to have been faked with movie lights. The picture constantly moves from one setting to another: indoors, on trains, outdoor panoramas, people dialoguing while hiking, entering and exiting and driving cars, and so forth. Yet the camera never gives the feeling either of being noticeably shaky or of being constrained to some track. And nearly all the settings are apparently completely real (the common simple foreground/background division of film visuals disappears in CoSM). [With some broad hints and multiple viewings I was eventually able to spot some of the seams in a constructed outdoor scene, but the construction is so subtly done most viewers will never find it.]

Some of the details in CoSM may appear on first viewing to be just make anything up, it doesn't really matter. But on closer viewing one finds they're in fact very specific. To start with, various bits of technology seem real. The application that displays maps and schedules and times is named Mappy, which is the real service widely used in Europe. There's a reference to having to take a telephone call from France Inter. France Inter is France's premier generalist public radio program, with a large staff and very widely ranging interests, exactly the sort that would call at that time and whose call had to be taken. There's a quick reference to TMZ, which is a real celebrity news/gossip website and TV program. (TMZ stands for Thirty-Mile Zone, the historic Hollywood studio zone.) Maria comments to Val that she doesn't want Jo-Ann staying at the chalet and recommends making a reservation at the Waldhaus instead, then later we see a concert there in a circular, windowed room. The Waldhaus really is a five-star hotel near Sils-Maria that really does program a lot of music and really does have some circular windowed spaces. When they've overslept while out hiking and are seeking a shortcut, they refer to Val Fex. Val Fex is indeed a side valley within a short distance of Sils-Maria. Jo-Ann's boyfriend refers to the ICA in London. London's Institute of Contemporary Arts has a very large and significant film program, with films showing anywhere from one day to several weeks, often at the same time as other films. In the epilog Maria Says To excel, and to know how to show it, is to excel twice. -- Baltasar Gracián said that.. Baltasar Gracián really is the name of a historical Spanish Jesuit philosopher who really did say that.

Even subtle errors add to the realism: When Maria appears on stage, Val whistles from the wings while the entire audience expresses its pleasure by simply applauding. Val is mostly shown as being quite good with cross-cultural differences, but she missed this one. In French culture audience whistling is a sort of gentle heckling or a sign of derision or a way the audience can express its displeasure by more than just not applauding (i.e. a method of active negative feedback). But Val is unaware that her intended encouragement is instead generally perceived as displeasure. This is exactly the sort of subtle cultural error that even a knowledgeable and careful American might commit.

The film of Val's early morning drive back from her outing to Lake Como is stylistically quite different from the rest of the film. Not only is the music very different, each image tends to be oddly framed and/or at an odd angle, and they are overlaid so there are almost always two or three images on the screen at the same time. The result is a sort of of impressionistic collage, in distinct contrast to the very realistic style of the rest of the film. Closeups of Val's face suggest she is in some pain, and she stops the car to throw up at one point. The purpose of this sequence seems to be simply to show us how different Val is when on her own as compared to when sharing time with Maria. Many have tried to interpret this sequence as some sort of reference to some additional specific event in the story. A much simpler interpretation: distorted and constrained vision, sensitivity to sound, a long face and intimations of physical pain, throwing up, and collapsing unconscious after managing to stay awake and drive for two hours, are all nothing more than symptoms of a bad hangover. In Europe attitudes toward alcohol are typically much more relaxed than in the U.S., so hard partying having significant effects the next day is an unremarkable possibility.

During Val's drive back from Lake Como, The Maloja Snake cloud formation appears very briefly in the montage. This seems unexceptional, as we've been told The Maloja Snake cloud formation is both an early morning phenomenon and ephemeral. So at that time it could have appeared briefly then disappeared again before much of anyone even noticed. One intriguing possibility is the cloud formation is not just the symbol of some sort of psychic break, but is in fact the cause of that break. It's arguable that Val's doubts have been submerged or hidden up to that point, and only after The Maloja Snake cloud formation appears does Val's friction with Maria become overt.

All of the fractured, multiple identities and interpretations are made particularly graphic by the set of the play-within-the-film that we finally see at the very end of CoSM. The stage set atomizes the office floorspace, with every room and every person on a slightly different level. And the walls are all represented by glass panels, which albeit a practical way to allow the audience to see everyone in the office, has the effect of reflecting shards of every character everywhere, rather like the entire stage set is a giant kaleidoscope.

CoSM clearly illustrates how different a film can be from a stage play. The film's movements among scenes are much wider and much more varied, it easily contains more characters and more subplots, and intimate incorporation of technology into the fabric of the story is straightforward. Nevertheless, CoSM has a bit of a stage play feel about it, probably simply because of so much very intricate dialog between only a few principal characters.

Similar Films

Three other films often mentioned in the CoSM context are All About Eve (1950), The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) and Opening Night (1977). The similarities are spread widely - one of these is a Hollywood film, one is a European film, and one is an Indie film.

CoSM, All About Eve, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and Opening Night all have a lot in common:

  1. They're mostly about females.

    (In fact all the characters in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant are female.)

  2. All are deeply connected to the world of acting.

    (In fact both All About Eve and Opening Night contain so much detail about the world of stage acting that they could be classified as backstage dramas.) And all four are quite conscious of the distinction between the theater and the movies.

    CoSM itself is a movie and much of it is about the world of movie acting. At the same time, the play-within-the-film is a stage production and there are significant references to the theater world too. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant was originally a stage play, and despite extensive and clever use of the filmic medium and reduced emotional exaggeration, its stage roots are still quite obvious (some even refer to its acting style as mannered). Most notable is that the whole film takes place inside one room, almost as if it were constrained to just one straightforward stage set. A significant portion of Opening Night unfolds inside a real theater, with some events visible to the audience and others strictly backstage. And the audience is real theater-goers, who with hardly any direction at all behave like a real theater audience, even though they know a film is being made. While the action of All About Eve is indubitably about the theater, its style is quite naturalistic. It uses varied medium and closeup shots of a wide variety of different indoor scenes, and even a few outdoor scenes.

    The general question of either moving back and forth between stage and theater, or choosing one or the other, weaves through several of the films. This is most obvious in All About Eve, where the idea of Eve leaving the theater for Hollywood and the question of whether or not she will come back are asked explicitly (perhaps reflecting both those times and the personal experience of writer Joseph Mankiewicz).

  3. All contain a very important relationship/conflict between an older woman and a younger woman.

    (The younger woman may be either a flesh-and-blood person or a ghost.)

  4. All include some sort of personal assistant character who is privy to intimate details of the life of their principal.

    (The job is both typical and standardized by the time of CoSM, somewhat atypical and ad hoc and temporary in All About Eve in earlier times, a bit unclear in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant where the dividing line between personal assistant, uncredited partner, servant, and slave is rather blurry, and spread between several individuals in Opening Night.)

  5. The younger woman moves on at the end.

    In All About Eve Eve first ruins Margo's career then decamps for Hollywood. In The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant Karin (the younger in the relationship) leaves Petra to return to her husband in Frankfurt, and Marlene the personal assistant quits in a huff. In Opening Night the young fan Nancy's ghost is vanquished before (or by?) the first performance.

    And in CoSM Val simply disappears very abruptly, with no explanation either to Maria within the film or to the viewers with their broader perspective, and seemingly not even any forethought.

  6. All contain intricate and extensive and ambiguous dialog.

  7. There is a considerable age difference between characters.

    Some have reached the peak of their professional life, while others are just starting out. (And a few are old enough this may turn out to be their last gig.)

  8. There is obvious ambition.

    Some of the younger characters who are just starting out want to take the place of the older established characters.

  9. There are allusions to class as well as age.

    All About Eve seems mainly to support the stereotype that very ambitious adults must have been very poor children. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant makes copious references to class: very different child rearing practices, petty grammar corrections, Gaby's intuitive dislike of Karin, etc. Opening Night suggests the life of Nancy the young fan and the life of Myrtle the well-known actress are separated by an unbridgeable cultural gap (who drives their own car, what rooms they stay in and where they eat, whether they can wheedle the keys to someone else's room, and so forth).

    CoSM's references to class are fairly indirect: It seems to suggest rather obliquely that Jo-Ann's tastes are more than just a matter of her young age. And Val defends silly but large mass audiences, even to the point of defending the production of schlocky art to sell to them.

  10. All four films support the deeper theme that performance is a kind of life, and life is a kind of performance.

But despite the extensive similarities in their scenarios and the obvious connections between them, the theme and the characters' motivations in each are quite different. All About Eve focuses on Eve's ambition to replace Margo. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant focuses on power relationships and sexual relationships and their interplay. Opening Night delves into the craft of acting, including the parts where a successful actress's actions seem crazy to others. CoSM is an exploration of being famous ...and also a formal stylistic exploration of stage and film. (Besides, the closest analogue in CoSM to Eve with her professional ambition and aggressiveness would be Jo-Ann, rather than the much more central character Val.)

Perhaps the most similar film thematically is Birdman. Both Birdman and CoSM focus on art and acting, especially focussing on older actors who are now able to look back extensively, but aren't ready to voluntarily leave the stage yet. Or perhaps thematically comparable films include some of the great female-driven films about identity, such as Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, David Lynch's Mulholland Drive and Ingmar Bergman's Persona.

Consider Persona (1966), Ingmar Bergman's story about an actress who has suffered some poorly understood breakdown and is now being cared for 24/7 by a nurse. It's similar to the other films in some ways (many of the characters are actors, bounds between professional and personal relationships are not clear, etc.), but rather dissimilar in others (not a whole lot of dialog, no notable age difference, etc.).

What's most relevant here is Persona's portrayal of one character identifying with another so much that the boundary between them breaks down until others see them as different personality aspects of just one individual. While in Persona the blurring is simply between two different individuals, in CoSM the blurring is also between a younger version and an older version of the same individual.


A particular difference between the films is that homosexuality/lesbianism plays quite different roles in each. In All About Eve references to lesbianism are deeply camouflaged, because of the censorious code restrictions of that time. (In fact, the references are so deeply camouflaged many miss them entirely.) Although today the film has something of a reputation for significant sexual intrigue, on actually viewing it one finds it makes very little difference whether or not those references are real or just imagined. Adding a lesbian interpretation further crisps up a couple plot points: ithat Eve's relationship with the critic Addison DeWitt is purely about power, and iithat Eve's possible marriage to the playwright Lloyd Richards would have been a sham. But even if Eve's lesbianism were discarded, her motivations wouldn't change at all, and the story wouldn't change in any significant way. On the other hand, lesbianism is clearly quite central to The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. While the sexual and power politics of that film are arguably universal, the actual story line simply makes no sense at all if the lesbian aspect were excluded. In Opening Night there don't seem to be any references to lesbianism at all. All its affairs (including former and recurrent affairs) are heterosexual, and most simply grow out of the tensions of staging a production. (And in Persona, sexuality issues are pretty much irrelevant.)

The case of CoSM and its possible lesbianism is particularly confusing:

First, the references within CoSM itself and within The Maloja Snake (the play-within-the-film) are different; there are two separate things going on ...but it's all too easy to not keep the separation crisp. The way The Maloja Snake uses homosexual attraction is more like The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, while CoSM itself deploys homosexual attraction more like All About Eve.

And second, in CoSM the incipient sexual attraction never goes anywhere or motivates any of what happens.

Most reviews of CoSM -probably prompted by publicity materials- mention lesbianism. But virtually none of them go any farther to explain just what part lesbianism actually plays. In reality, at bottom, the lesbian references in CoSM (other than those in the play-within-the-film) are fairly subtle and don't drive the action. Looked at closely, the supposed lesbian theme in CoSM quickly boils down to nothing more than a feeling that women can't be as close as Maria and Val were without some sort of sexual attraction, a proposition that once stated so baldly sounds rather silly. Much more likely is that all the tension of the age difference, the divergent interests, the contrasting styles, the dissimilar approaches to technology, and the mismatched professional goals, is what really mattered; and Maria -perhaps unconsciously- hit on lesbianism as one possible way to cope with and somewhat reduce that tension. (Maybe Maria is trying to solve problems similar to Helena's by applying Sigrid's style of thinking.)

The characters in CoSM seem to be motivated primarily not by their sexuality but rather by how far they are through their life's arc (i.e. by their age). Even ambition, which clearly does exist in some of the characters, does not seem to be any character's primary motivation. Rather CoSM is a straightforward exploration of celebrity, acting, and how growing older affects characters and their interactions.

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