Clouds of Sils Maria is about as highbrow as commercial cinema gets. It's a meta three-part film by a French director. It stars Juliette Binoche. No surprise, it's currently without a US release date.
But the film has been getting lots of attention in Europe—it premiered at Cannes a year after writer/director Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color took home the Palme d’Or, amid controversy. Like that film, director Olivier Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria is a story about female queerness directed by a straight man. In both films, queerness is much less a fixed identity than it is a metaphorical vehicle through which the directors can make grand, sweeping commentaries about Life and Youth and Beauty—and, above all, Art.
As Clouds of Sils Maria hits the international festival circuit this summer and fall, I question whether or not it truly counts as queer representation.
The story centers on middle-aged actress Maria Enders, played by Juliette Binoche. She’s a performer of the cinematic old guard who goes head-to-head with a hotshot young director as he embarks upon his brand new venture: a revival of the play in which, at age 18, Maria was first launched to fame.
The play is Maloja Snake—it’s about a young lesbian who professionally and sexually manipulates an older lesbian until the latter is driven to suicide.
Two decades earlier, Maria played the younger, Sigrid: desirable, ebullient, cunning. Now, she is being asked to play the older, Helena: overworked, insecure, unstable. At first, Maria balks. She grew so intimately attune with the role of Sigrid, she doesn’t think she could possibly play Helena. Alone with the ambitious new director in a quiet sitting room of polished wood and luxe leather, Maria sits back in her armchair and delivers her dissent. No, no, playing Helena would be impossible. Her loyalty, her heart, is with Sigrid. “For me,” she says, “it was more than a role.” She adds that her faithful fondness of this character has nothing to do with lesbianism. “I’ve always been straight,” she says.
Maria just as easily may have said, “No homo.”
Her personal assistant, Val, played by crush-of-queer-women-everywhere Kristen Stewart, convinces Maria to take on the new Helena role against her misgivings; for the remainder of the film, Maria’s assertion of her own unflinching and eternal heterosexuality is thrown into nearly constant question. The two women retreat to the small and reclusive Swiss town of Sils Maria where they run lines, playing out the explosive, dialogue-heavy drama of lesbian lust and destruction. For Val and Maria, the explicit sexual tension of the play’s text simmers just below their own personal surface, threatening, line by line, to boil over.
When they aren’t rehearsing, the women aren’t necessarily reverting to platonic behavior. They indulge in activities like swimming together in their underwear. At night, they curl up in the living room of their shared house, arguing and laughing and smoking cigarettes. During one argument, Val refers to the young starlet who will be playing Sigrid in the Maloja Snake revival as her favorite actress; Maria demands to know what is wrong with her own acting, and Val gently accuses her of jealousy. Later on, Val (reading for Sigrid) accuses Maria (reading for Helena) of the same thing—but it’s now explicitly coded, of course, as sexual jealousy. Toward the film’s end, Val quits her job, and Maria begging her not to go—“Stay, please stay”—rings with the heartache of a lover who is about to be left behind.
Throughout Sils Maria, art battles for breath in reality. “It’s theater,” Val says, defending the play in response to some of Maria’s latest qualms. “It’s an interpretation of life. It can be truer than life itself.”
In life itself, these women touch: light presses of each other’s hands, a finger swept quickly across a cheek. Yet days and scenes reliably end with them both retreating, always, to separate bedrooms. One morning, Maria opens Val’s door and finds Val sleeping in a thong; for a couple breathless beats, Maria does not look away.
“I’ve always been straight,” Maria’s casually dropped early line serves to mitigate the ferocious interplay of queer text and subtext which steadily unfolds for the duration of the film. In a similar situation, also in the first act, we are informed through dialogue that Val has become romantically involved with a male photographer. He is irrelevant to the grander narrative, quickly seen, and soon forgotten. This character’s inclusion suggests the film wishes to affirm Val’s heterosexuality against all the evidence it presents to the contrary. We are told that the women are attracted exclusively to men through throwaway exposition, whereas visually, the film tells a different story entirely.
Writing for Bitch last October, Emily Hashimoto explored homoeroticism and “queer-ish” relationships in contemporary television, wondering “if it is enough for fans to have these gray area characters” without ever seeing on-screen relationships “evolve” to canonical queerness. While Hashimoto concludes by acceding that, while it’s frustrating, the depiction of meaningful human connection regardless of sex and romance has some value, Rose Bridges on Autostraddle spelled out that TV and film want the ratings and dollars from LGBTQ fans “but don’t care enough about us that they’d risk actually offending homophobes with explicit queer representation.” Queer-baiting can loosely be defined as the “practice of television shows and movies putting in a little gay subtext, stirring up interest with queer fans, and then pulling a NO HOMO, MAN on the viewers.”
Sils Maria’s particular brand of “no homo” operates in a similar but disparate vein from the queer-ish-ness of television shows like Sherlock and Rizzoli and Isles; the difference, primarily, is in audience. Television executives seemingly love to get everyday gays to tune into their programs using wink-wink-nudge-nudge suggestions of queerness, without having to lose out on their broader, straighter audiences by taking queerness too far. Sils Maria attempts to make its mark at the most prestigious international film festivals in the world. It’s a film about film, a piece of art about art. And in art, taking things too far—provoking—is the name of the game.
Blue is the Warmest Color took home the Palme d’Or last year in part because it felt daring. The film’s graphic ten-minute sex scene has been both lauded and condemned by critics across the ideological spectrum. For better or worse, it’s a scene which goes where queer-baiting films, by definition, have never dared go: depicting sex between two women, thus visually affirming their queerness.
However, even in a film about two queer women, Blue manages to throw in its own “no homo” spin when Adèle cheats on Emma, multiple times, with a man. While Adèle’s affair can be read as a natural progression in a woman's path of sexual fluidity which by no means cancels out her queerness, the event still suggests a male-driven corruptibility to love—or at least, sexual passion construed as love—between women.
That’s what’s frustrating about the depiction of queerness in Sils Maria—the women’s identities feel at base like vehicles of the plot. Will they kiss, or won’t they? In Sils Maria, the concept of lesbianism is a thematic tool, allowing an aging actress to confront her loss of personal and professional desirability; Maria lusts after Val because she lusts after her own youthful self. Emma and (especially) Val function within their films as foils, rather than fully-realized, complex queer characters. In Blue, a male character muses to a party full of artists that there is nothing quite so elusive, so mystical, so fantastic as the female orgasm; Emma and Adèle’s naked bodies are graphically matched with marble statues in museums; Adèle’s hunger for Emma, visually hammered home by close-ups of her mouth while she eats, sleeps, and breathes, is biblically carnal.
Sils Maria, and Blue before it, engage in what I will term highbrow no homo: queering the text to romanticize and intellectualize female queerness because it is edgy and bold, without fully committing to representations that are pure of paralyzing sexual self-doubt, ruinous lust, and complications with men. While these can be elements of the queer female experience, hyper-focusing upon the destructive drama of sexual gray areas is not likely to do real-life queer women any favors.