Are celebrities people who truly earn their accolades, status, and our respect? Or are they mostly hollow mythical figures elevated by a less-than-artistic need to seek drama from a public figure? This is one of the questions that Clouds of Sils Maria asks through its central character, Maria Enders, and those around her seem to be a measure of what the answer to that question is, in relation to Maria, her work, and her status as veteran actress and aging woman.
Each woman the film focuses on is indicative of her generation in a professional setting. Maria, of Gen X, is accomplished in her own right, having built a career during a less postmodern, traditional era through breaking through with a modern, efficient style of working, specifically in the area of acting – she manages to balance both a career as a serious theatrical actress, as well as a successful Hollywood actress working in the mainstream (what she must refer to as a well-paying side gig). Valentine, on the other hand, like most millennials, seems to find herself stuck in a job that doesn’t force her to change any aspect of her distinct and youthfully cynical personality in her pursuit of accomplishing her work as an assistant efficiently and tactfully, but seems to demand more of her at a personal cost than any other job might – and she begins to resent the tasks she’s chosen to accomplish more and more with each day that passes. Jo-Ann Ellis, meanwhile, representative of the burgeoning Gen Z, incorporates her personality, image, and youthful potential as a professional tool, which works to her advantage, despite the chaos and judgment that invites.
While Maria represents a Yes to the 1st question at the beginning of this essay, and Jo-Ann seems to be a Yes to the 2nd, both women display depths that contradict the answers to those respective questions. While Maria is a refined, classically trained, and methodical actress, she is also complicit in creating a dichotomy between artistically sound, “real” actors, and image-based cash cow mainstream actors. Jo-Ann, on the other hand, questions that dichotomy on the basis of her actions. Yes, she is a young woman whose beauty, scandals, and provocative personality are tenets of her celebrity persona, but she proves herself to be an intelligent, cultured, and tactical artist underneath the façade as well.
The film follows Maria Enders at the end of one era of her career, and the beginning of another. Her relationships with Valentine and Jo-Ann mark the former and the latter, respectively, and both force her to come to terms with her views on the craft and business of acting, her status as an older woman in the face of younger generations coming into their own, and what will become of her once she figures out how she’s changed in relation to these things. As for the answer to the question that began this essay, and how the film answers it – Actors like Maria or Jo-Ann either care too much, or not at all about these questions, but what matters in the face of either answer is a need to be relevant, as artists or as living myths.