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From All about Eve (1950) to Clouds of Sils Maria (2014): Adapting a Classic Paradigm

Olivier Assayas bridles at being described as a critic, preferring that his writing about film—primarily for Cahiers du Cinema between January 1980 and November 1985--be seen as the work of a film director finding his way. In this, he follows Jean-Luc Godard, an ever-present link to the magazine’s most influential years in the 1950s: “All of us at Cahiers,” Godard wrote, “thought of ourselves as future directors. Frequenting ciné-clubs and the Cinématheque was already a way of thinking cinema and thinking about cinema. Writing was already a way of making films.” (Hiller, 13) Assayas had grown up in a rich cultural milieu that included the film-industry associates of his screenwriter father, who eventually was able to arrange valuable internships for Olivier.1 He learned screenwriting when his father began to be disabled by Parkinson’s disease – Assayas helped him adapting Maigret novels for television, then began writing scripts on his own. By the time his short film Copyright (1979) brought him to the attention of Cahiers editors Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana, he was also writing widely in the trendy Parisian press, “attempting to bridge the gap” between cinema, post-1968 disenchantment, and the “modernity” of the Anglo-American music scene.2 At this time, the Cahiers staff was reorienting the magazine from politics back to film, embracing the cinephilia of its early years while looking for new voices.3 “The only reason [he] took seriously their invitation,” according to Assayas, “was Cahiers’s tradition of publishing future filmmakers.” (Assayas).

Yet Assayas was responding to more than Cahiers’s value as a launching pad. He embraced the intellectual traditions of André Bazin and the critics who would become nouvelle vague filmmakers, known for their engagement with the auteurs of American cinema, including Joseph Mankiewicz.4 As Assayas’s career developed, the Cahiers critics’ interrogation of filmmaking practice through the lens of cinema history became a dimension of his films, most obviously as in Irma Vep (1996), which plays with the idea of adapting Louis Feuillade’s popular serial Les Vampires (1915-16) in a context of late twentieth century French film culture. And a similar kind of film-historical layering is present in Clouds of Sils Maria, if less ostentatiously. Like All About Eve, Sils Maria examines a star’s coming to terms with aging in a world that is also evolving. This essay explores how All About Eve can be understood as a template for Clouds of Sils Maria, even as Assayas adapts the aging-actress paradigm for a changed society and an era of accelerated media convergence. Assayas’s work always conveys a sense of living in the flux of history, memory of what came before providing a frame of reference in the fleeting moment. A comparative reading of these two films sharpens our understanding of both and in the process makes us more fully aware of the mechanisms of time as Assayas dramatizes them.

Before turning to All About Eve, we should recognize other films invoked in Sils Maria in ways that deliberately transgress the closure of a single text or even of a single film tradition. Das Wolkenphänomen in Maloja (Arnold Fanck, 1924) is screened for Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) because it documents the Maloja snake cloud movement that provides the title and central metaphor of the play she is rehearsing. But citing Fanck’s work also creates a wide frame of reference for Assayas’s meditation on performance and the function of film in society, reaching back to the silent era, and recalling Fanck’s association with Leni Riefenstahl and hers with Adolf Hitler.5 Reviewers of Sils Maria also mention Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972).6 Persona explores the relationship between a celebrated actor, Elizabeth Vogler (Liv Ullmann) and a young nurse, Alma (Bibi Anderssen), who loses her bearings and enters a realm of identity confusion famously depicted by Bergman through a merging of the faces of Anderssen and Ullmann. In Sils Maria, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), the personal assistant of actor Maria Enders, similarly becomes unsettled in her relationship with the star. Assayas has said that Persona is among his favorite films, and that he knew he was “in Bergman territory.” (Lukenbill) And Assayas initially planned for The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant to be the play revived in Sils Maria, replacing it with the invented Maloja Snake. Fassbinder’s film, and his original stage play, present the love of fashion designer Petra von Kant (Margit Carstensen in the film) for the younger Karin Thimm (Hanna Schygulla), a doomed longing that ultimately drives home an inexorable movement toward solitude and death. Along with their theater associations, Persona and Petra von Kant have in common with Clouds of Sils Maria an older woman artist’s process of self-discovery through her intense relationship with a younger woman. In Fassbinder’s film, significantly, Petra dictates a letter to Joseph Mankiewicz.7 The film offers no explanation, but as Peter Matthews has written for the Criterion DVD: “Without precisely attempting a remake of [All About Eve], Fassbinder brings out its daring lesbian subtext and upholds Mankiewicz's philosophical nihilism.”

Like All about Eve, Clouds of Sills Maria explores the crisis of an actress who has recently turned forty. While Margo Channing (Bette Davis) in Mankiewicz’s film is confronted with the increasingly difficult task of playing twenty-something protagonists in the popular plays of Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), in Sils Maria Maria Enders is faced with taking on the role of an older woman in a play that had first brought her recognition twenty years earlier as the woman’s much younger lover (see Figures 1 and 2). Both films are melodramas about an adjustment in actors’ understanding of themselves brought about though their interactions with younger women who are their assistants and replacements. Margo makes Eve her assistant, but Eve then becomes her understudy and finally replaces Margo in a new play written for her. Maria gradually takes on the character of the older woman as she rehearses the role of Helena with her assistant Valentine; by the time of the play’s performance in London, Maria feels herself pushed aside, in life as on stage, by the young actor cast as Sigrid, social-media celebrity Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz). In both films, the stars must come to accept that time has driven a wedge between who they are now and who they were when their public images were established, images with continuing influence on each woman’s sense of self.

From All about Eve (1950) to Clouds of Sils Maria (2014): Adapting a Classic Paradigm William Mooney Literature/Film Quarterly
Figure 1: Margo Channing (Bette Davis), stripped of the makeup and costume that keep her young on stage, gets her first close look at Eve.
From All about Eve (1950) to Clouds of Sils Maria (2014): Adapting a Classic Paradigm William Mooney Literature/Film Quarterly
Figure 2: On the train to Zurich, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) in granny glasses and reading a newspaper stands in sharp visual contrast to her assistant Val (Kristen Stewart) who juggles two iPhones and an iPad to manage Maria’s life.

Clouds of Sils Maria has a play-like three-part structure, presenting three segments of time in three different settings. The film actually opens on a train bringing Maria and Valentine from Paris to Switzerland, where she is to present a career achievement award to Wilhelm Melchior, the playwright who created the role that first brought her to celebrity. Since that initial success as Sigrid in Maloja Snake, Maria has become a widely renowned star, in theatre, in European art films, and even in Hollywood blockbusters, a serious actor, charismatically beautiful, an object of both admiration and desire. On the train, she learns that Melchior has died suddenly—the award celebration will now be a memorial service. The theater director who has been pursuing Maria to appear in a revival of Maloja Snake will use the occasion to push her toward accepting the role.

In the second part, Maria secludes herself with Val at the chalet of Melchior and his widow to rehearse the role of Helena. The house overlooks the valley of Sils Maria, known for the Maloja snake phenomenon after which the play was named, low-lying clouds that follow a serpentine route through the mountain passes, devouring the landscape before them, an obvious metaphor for the action of time and mortality. Even after having signed the contract, Maria has doubts about playing a role that will very publicly present a confrontation between her past and present selves. But she and Val go to work, Val reading the part of Sigrid while Maria struggles to take on the role of Helena. Gradually the boundaries between actor and character blur, between Maria and Helena and between Val and Sigrid. As they near the completion of their work, Maria and Val make several visits to a higher vantage point in the landscape, once at dawn specifically to witness the action of the Maloja snake. This occurs at the apex of Val’s growing frustration with ambiguities in her relationship with Maria and, as they approach the peak, Val allows Maria to go on alone, abandoning her as Sigrid in the play abandons Helena.

For part three of the film, the action moves to London where Maloja Snake is to be staged. Maria has already replaced Val with an equally young, attractive, and competent assistant, and now she meets with the play’s director and with Jo-Ann Ellis. Jo-Ann had visited Maria briefly in the Alps to pay homage to the older star, but she, herself, is a celebrity of a new type, based on teen movies and social media gossip. In fact, her affair with a hip London novelist whose painter wife has attempted suicide goes viral and threatens to engulf all other attention to the play and to Maria. Walking through a last dress rehearsal, Maria suggests to Jo-Ann that she cast a lingering glance back at Helena, as Maria had in the role twenty years earlier.

“You leave without looking at me,” Maria says, “as if I didn’t exist, … the audience follows you out, but instantly forgets about [Helena], so….”

“So… so what?” replies Jo-Ann, feigning puzzlement. “No one really gives a fuck about Helena at that point, do you think? I’m sorry, but I mean it’s pretty clear to me this poor woman’s all washed up.” And after a pause, almost sarcastically, “I mean your character, right, not you.” To make sure that Assayas’s point cannot be missed, Jo-Ann is made to explain emphatically, “it’s time to move on--I think they [the audience] want what comes next.” There will be no appeal in the film to this final judgment. Maria, like Helena, is being left behind. Her only recourse might be to accept a film role offered her by a young director who will use her as an embodiment of values he admires of a bygone era.

At the heart of Clouds of Sils Maria, as of All About Eve, is a confusion in the actor’s mind of her theater/screen image with her off-stage/off-screen self, and Assayas’s film follows the earlier one in emphasizing (a) the role of the assistant/replacement in the process of the star’s adjustment, and (b) the existential challenge of performance at the intersection of stardom and a life. The function of Eve, carried out in Sils Maria by Valentine and Jo-Ann in combination, is to force the mature star to confront the widening chasm between youthful image and aging actress. Understanding that All About Eve is in fact about Margo Channing, we can see Eve (Ann Baxter) as a necessary creation of Margo’s imagination that ultimately allows her to take the risk of being loved for herself rather than cling to a fading star persona. More literally, Eve is an invention of Gertrude Slescynski, the ambitious girl from Milwaukee, and her android-like perfection in becoming Eve sets her apart from the other, more human characters. That she is a type is underscored by her chosen name and by Mankiewicz’s introduction of Phoebe (Barbara Bates) to repeat the pattern of the new replacing the old, multiplied infinitely in the mirror for the film’s final shot. But the idealized Eve who masks the monstrously ambitious Gertrude is also a perfect projection of Margo’s fears, a talented young beauty arriving on the scene to replace her.8

From All about Eve (1950) to Clouds of Sils Maria (2014): Adapting a Classic Paradigm William Mooney Literature/Film Quarterly
Figure 3: The Aged Actor holds forth at the Sarah Siddons Society while the voice-over of Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) introduces the characters of the story we will be told in flashback.

The simplification of the story into the stages of Margo’s adjustment is naturalized as a product of memory, a retrospective narration in a flashback from the Sarah Siddons Awards ceremony that presents only relevant facts (see Figure 3 above): Eve appears in Margo’s life, becomes her assistant, increasingly takes control of Margo’s affairs, becomes her understudy, replaces Margo on stage, and, finally, usurps Margo’s role in Lloyd’s new play. Margo’s closest friend Karen (Celeste Holm), the person who should help Margo adjust to her new stage in life, is the agency through which Eve appears in Margo’s life, and it is Karen’s voice that takes over the narration from Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) to lead us back to that moment. It is through Karen that Eve becomes Margo’s understudy, and Karen gives Margo the “boot in the rear she needs and deserves,” in Lloyd’s words, by keeping her away from the theater so that Eve can replace Margo on stage.

In a complementary way, Margo resists change and tries to deny that it is coming. After their “honeymoon,” she pushes Eve away towards a job with her producer Max (Gregory Ratoff). She learns that Eve has become her understudy only after the fact, which some in the film find surprising, then a few minutes later pretends still not to know; and she seems content to remain ignorant of the betrayal when Karen prevents her from getting to the theatre. Most significantly, Margo’s acceptance of her changed self occurs at a distance from Eve’s final step forward. While Eve is blackmailing Karen to force Lloyd to give her the role in Footsteps on the Ceiling—turning the world upside down--Margo voluntarily decides to give up the part. We see Eve at work, then we learn of a decision Margo has already made, understanding that the events are profoundly related but not directly as cause and effect. All of the actions in the film involve Eve, but they are only meaningful in terms of Margo’s gradual understanding and acceptance of the change in her circumstances and self.

From All about Eve (1950) to Clouds of Sils Maria (2014): Adapting a Classic Paradigm William Mooney Literature/Film Quarterly
Figure 4: Another aging actor holds forth, at Wilhelm Melchior’s memorial gathering, mediated by a flat-screen monitor as Maria Enders begins to witness her own movement into the past.

While Clouds of Sils Maria does not open with a flashback, the memorial event for Wilhelm Melchior gives it a similar temporal framing. In All About Eve, Addison refers to the “hallowed walls, and indeed many of these faces” of the Sarah Siddons Society as the camera shows a chorus of elderly waiters as the surviving witnesses of long forgotten actors; in Sils Maria, Maria describes “a sea of gray hair” as she scans the crowd at the Melchior gathering. The fact alone of Melchior’s death invites a retrospective glance towards Maria’s youth and first success, and, to heighten this effect, an aging actor, Henryk Wald (Hanns Zischler), is introduced and invited to join Maria as one of the speakers (see Figure 4). Long associated with Melchior’s plays, Wald also made two films with Maria: he had seduced and treated her badly as a neophyte during the first, and she rejected him six years later, spurning him entirely when he was drawn to her by her fame. He is a shell of an actor, doing his best work, according to Melchior’s wife, when he doesn’t understand a line of the play. He is comparable to the “Aged Actor” of the Sarah Siddons ceremony who can’t resist citing Macbeth’s metaphor of an actor who “struts and frets his hour upon the stage.” Wald suggests that Melchior will continue to live through his plays, adding in German: “So I say not ‘adieu’, but rather ‘see you later Wilhelm’.” But the obvious irony here is that Melchior’s literary immortality will be brief; rather, he will soon be joined in oblivion by the strutting Wald and other gray-haired admirers. Valentine has already been established as a youthful counterpoint to this crowd—she escapes with a hip young fashion photographer after undercutting Wald’s high-art pretensions by referring to a movie he made as about “missile codes and shit.” Maria’s own Margo-like irreverence comes out in her remark to a friend, “don’t be so solemn--he’s dead, I’m not.”

These ceremonial introductions emphasize the artificiality and the archaic status of the theatre, but they also establish both films’ focus on the theatrical and on performance, the nexus of stardom and personality for their protagonists. The theatrical and histrionic dominate virtually every scene of All About Eve, from the early monologue delivered to Eve by Bill (Gary Merrill) claiming that everything is theater, to Lloyd’s shouting across the empty theater that it’s time “the piano realized it has not written the concerto.” Because they are self-consciously people “of the theater” instead of “ordinary human beings,” as Addison articulates, their speech is laced with theater metaphors, most extensively in the thirty-minute party scene at Margo’s where all of the strands come together in a final dialogue that begins when Margo says Lloyd’s suggestion to go home and go to bed “won’t play.” Karen calls the idea “un-dramatic” but practical, to which Margo responds, “this is my house, not a theatre.” Then, “stop being a star and stop treating your guests as a supporting cast” Karen tells her. When Margo goes upstairs followed by Bill, Addison remarks, “too bad, we’re going to miss the third act. They’re going to play it off stage.” The function of the theatrical language is to underscore the fundamental difficulty Margo faces of shedding her change-resistant star image in favor of a new identity as an ordinary human being, allowed to mature and to have normal human relationships.  

Margo’s problem is an existential one, that in becoming characters for which she is rewarded by a “wave of love” from her audience, she loses a sense of self, a danger only for the talented. Thus Addison distinguishes between reading a part and a transformative performance, full of “fire and magic.” Lloyd’s words that “Margo compensates for underplaying on stage by overplaying reality” drive home the danger of the “magic” for Margo off-stage. Eve is dangerous to Margo, and to herself, precisely because she too has this power, demonstrated in two key moments. One is the performance of her invented past, the tragedy of losing her young lover to war, during which she seems more authentic than in all her attempts to please Karen, Margo and the others. Her crying in response to Margo’s performance the end of Aged in Wood can be read as a testament to Margo’s power. But Eve’s second triumph is toward the end of the film when she addresses Karen in the ladies’ room to demand the role in Lloyd’s new play. She shows sincere anger at what she presents as Addison’s betrayal, only to shed that for yet a deeper authenticity when telling Karen what she wants. Registering the impact of Eve’s acting, Karen is moved from being cold and superior, to understanding, to be finally rendered helpless.

Margo is the epitome of this kind of acting talent, as she demonstrates in her mercurial shifts throughout her party. But the central fact on which the success of All About Eve depends is Bette Davis’s embodiment of such a character. Although Davis was a last-minute replacement for Claudette Colbert, who injured her back two weeks before shooting was to begin on All About Eve, Davis is widely recognized to be perfect in the part. Margo Channing corresponded to Davis’s star persona--she had played egocentric, willful, capricious women, and she was known in Hollywood as difficult and demanding to the point that other directors warned Mankiewicz about problems he would have in working with her.9 And of course she was the right age, 41, with more than sixty films behind her, so that Davis brought to the role of Margo the challenges of an aging star who, while never a beauty, had been successful as an object of romantic desire. It was as if the part had been written for her as the role of Maria Enders was created for Juliette Binoche.10 The impossibility of detecting any precise boundary between the Davis persona and Margo Channing’s character dramatizes a central premise of the film.

Typical of Mankiewicz’s text, which openly articulates its ideas, Margo describes the fluidity of performance as a way of being when she and Karen are left stuck in the car and Karen remarks that her friends can’t stay angry at her because she is just being Margo. “What is that,” Margo asks rhetorically, “beside something spelled out in light bulbs, I mean?” When Karen reminds her that Bill loves her, Margo responds: “More than anything in the world I love Bill, and I want Bill, and I want him to want me. But me, not Margo Channing, and if I can’t tell them apart, how can he? [my emphasis]” And she continues a moment later “… ten years from now, Margo Channing will have ceased to exist. And what’s left will be… what?” This defines the problem that results from the actor confusing herself with a star image – an identity created in collaboration with fans – that will be slower to evolve, and decline, than the flesh and blood performer.

In Clouds of Sils Maria, separating the role of the assistant, Valentine, from that of the star’s replacement, Jo-Ann Ellis, allows fuller development of the interaction between the assistant and the star, since no time need be spent showing how one becomes the other. Yet while the work with the assistant is extended and the encounter with Maria’s replacement—Jo-Ann as Sigrid—is simplified, these two in tandem serve the same psychological function for Maria that Eve performs for Margo: they force her to confront the problem and then to accept the coming change as inevitable. While Eve’s introduction to Margo is an important early scene in Manckiewicz’s film, Sills Maria begins at the next stage, where Val has already become—to use Margo Channing’s words--a “sister, lawyer, mother, friend, psychiatrist and cop” for Maria. Val is deeply involved in all aspects of Maria’s life, managing not only the full range of Maria’s professional relationships, but acting as a sounding board for decisions, even helping to orchestrate plans related to her divorce and offering to write Maria’s personal remembrance of Melchior. The women appear to be close, humor and frankness giving their banter some sharp edges. Above all, Val provides Maria with a window on “reality,” by which she means an awareness of the current media-rich world that is too much for Maria to keep up with. Val is shrewd and practical, helping Maria evaluate what could seem to the older actor an undifferentiated sea of meaningless detail. And Maria seems to lean on her emotionally.

Theatricality and performance in Maria’s situation present her with a variation of the existential challenge faced by Margo in All About Eve: if Maria can be Helena, the older woman in Maloja Snake, then it seems to go without saying that she can no longer be the younger woman, Sigrid. In fact Maria has offered this as a reason to reject the role: because she was Sigrid, she tells the director Klaus, she cannot possibly be Helena, to which he responds that Helena is what Sigrid becomes after twenty years. This would seem to simplify the issue but actually complicates it by posing the question of the continuity of an individual’s identity between youth and age. In order to become Helena, Maria will have to accept the fact that she is no longer Sigrid.

The confusion of identity between actor and character in performance of a role is thoroughly dramatized as Maria and Val rehearse, leading us as viewers into ambiguities about any boundary between actor and character. This is established in the scene where Maria as Helena describes to Sigrid what others say about her, words that could be equally applicable to Val. Val/Sigrid responds: “And why are you telling me this? It’s none of my business. You want people to know? (pause) You think that if you arouse their pity, people will back off. I’ve been around a lot less than you, but in my experience it’s quite the opposite, wouldn’t you agree?” Our first response is to assume that these lines are about the relationship between Maria and Val, to wonder how close they really are, perhaps even lovers. We remember, for example, the hint of possessive jealousy Maria had revealed when authorizing Val to go off with the photographer. “When they tell me about you,” Maria says, “how much they appreciate you, they’re using you to humiliate me.” But then she suddenly breaks out of playing Helena, entirely changing her facial expression and yelling “shit!,” making us realize that we have mistaken her performance as Helena for her life as Maria. We have not been able to distinguish Maria from Helena nor Val from Sigrid.

The film continues to build on this confusion, another powerful instance occurring after they lose their way in the dark one evening after going higher in the mountains. Val confronts Maria, listing several of Maria’s frustrations such as not liking the play and saying with emotion in her voice, “you don’t have to take it out on me.” Cut to the next morning, where Maria seems angry with Val for secretly making reservations on a flight to Tokyo in order to leave her. But in fact the flight reservations are in the play, Sigrid is leaving Helena, not Val leaving Maria—we have been tricked and Maria has seemed totally authentic as Helena, totally one with Helena.

When Maria is struggling with Helena’s lines and takes a break, she comments on the actress who originally played Helena, and how “disgusted she made me feel when she slipped into the skin of this defeated woman. She got such obscene pleasure out of it, night after night.”

“Why defeated?” asks Val.

“Defeated by… by age, by her insecurities. Letting this kid lead her around by the nose.” And after Val suggests that there is more to it, Maria continues, “this poor woman is ready to kill herself before the play even starts. She’s using Sigrid as a weapon, that’s all” [my emphasis]. When they start rehearsing again, they perform the lines we saw interrupted earlier, and though we now know that it is only rehearsal for the play, we once again see not the slightest distance between Maria and Helena, continuing into new territory when she levels her eyes and says:

“There’s one thing I excel at, that’s reading people’s behavior.”

“So how should I be reading yours?” Sigrid/Val responds.

This scene is a mini-drama about the inseparability of the actor from the performance, a tour de force by Maria and by Juliette Binoche (and by Val and Kristen Stewart), just as the role of Margo was for Bette Davis. As with the scene where Sigrid’s betrayal is first misunderstood to be Val’s, Maria has successfully become Helena, the performance becoming the reality, while reality itself is a performance.

Both Maria and Margo Channing use their assistants as “weapons” to force themselves to accept change, in essence the suicide of a star-identity based on youth. Yet this process must play out differently in the changed world of 2014, far from the reality Mankiewicz was addressing in 1950, and in an interview in Slate, Assayas distinguishes his film from All About Eve on the basis of an evolved context of manners and attitudes. Mark Lukenbill, the interviewer, says to Assayas:

Obviously the ‘aging actress’ is such an old Hollywood trope, and I think one thing that I really liked about this movie [Sils Maria] is that Juliette's character's personal image, her physical image, isn't what concerns her.

Assayas responds:

No, it's not and I don't think that the film deals at all with the issue of decline. It's not All About Eve, where it's youth against age, or a young actress against an older actress. That's not what it's about. Also because the process of aging has changed. We don't age the way our parents or grandparents aged; it's a different world in that sense. And if we're talking about an actress like Juliette, she has possibly her best work still ahead of her. [Aging is] still an issue. You still have to accept that it's happening….   (Slate)

From All about Eve (1950) to Clouds of Sils Maria (2014): Adapting a Classic Paradigm William Mooney Literature/Film Quarterly
Figure 5: Maria strips away all concealment as she becomes Helena to Val’s Sigrid; it is through the younger women that the older actresses come to terms with change.

In fact, age is a principal reason Maria cannot play Sigrid, and her physical maturity is emphasized in the scene where Maria and Val undress to go swimming (see Figure 5). Kristen Stewart remains partially covered while a long shot in broad daylight contrasts her with the full nudity of Binoche. The scene perhaps hints at a modesty Val adopts with Maria, but it also offers the audience an opportunity for a non-erotic assessment of Binoche’s aging body. And Maria’s age had been highlighted by the reference to her affair with Henryk Wald; now she is no longer awed by him and she laughed dismissively when he invited her to his room, yet she also gave him her room number and he did not call her. In contrast to Margo Channing, Maria’s comfort with her aging is a separate issue from its impact on roles she can play and on her evolving public image.

The differences between the Mankiewicz era and that of Assayas are especially significant in two areas, the situation of women and the media landscape. With respect to women, change from the early film to the later one is most evident in the protagonists’ relations with men. All About Eve frames Margo’s dilemma explicitly according to the rules of classical Hollywood patriarchy: being a woman is “one career all females have in common,” she says, and “sooner or later we’ve got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted.” And in the lines that most offend today: “nothing’s any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed, and there he is. Without that, you’re not a woman. You’re something with a French provincial office or a book full of clippings. But you’re not a woman.” Narrative closure is achieved with the announcement of her wedding plans with Bill.

But the film also subverts this patriarchal framework, in part through the generic conventions of melodrama: it focuses almost entirely on women, Margo, Eve, and Karen, three strong characters around whom the men revolve. Bill and Lloyd essentially work for Margo, and Lloyd is a nitwit easily manipulated by Eve. In fact the women settle among themselves what will happen. Karen mediates the relationship between Margo and Eve, and when Eve asks what Bill, Lloyd and Max might say about her becoming Margo’s understudy, Karen has the punch line, “they’ll do what they’re told.” So the world is superficially organized and managed by men, but women rule from behind the scenes. More radically, Margo’s words frame the issue of gender as secondary to the notion of performance. In her a-woman-needs-a-man speech she defines being a woman as a “career” comparable to other kinds of work, including acting, with socially defined modes of operation and measures of success. She emphasizes that even her confessional statement must be cataloged with lines delivered in all of her other roles, to be followed by “slow curtain. The End.”11 Addison is immune to Eve’s seductive charms—if he wants to possess her, as he enjoys being accompanied by Miss Casswell (Marilyn Monroe), it is part of his performance in the role of a man “of the theater.”

Assayas’s film is similarly a women’s melodrama in which Maria, Val, and Jo-Ann dominate, and although a sharp word is still required from time to time to remind men of the changed reality, the power of women in Sils Maria is no longer concealed behind a façade of patriarchy. In fact, most of the men are gone. Instead of wanting a husband as Margo does, Maria is divorcing one. The revered playwright Melchior is not just a puppet like Lloyd, he is dead. Wald is reduced to impotence, and only Klaus, director of the new production of Maloja Snake, has something of the presence of Bill, Lloyd, or Max, and he, like them, is subservient to the women. The photographer with whom Val goes off and Jo-Ann’s painter friend are playthings for the women, and even for sex the men may be irrelevant, given the suggestions of a sexual interest between Maria and Val. There are the hints of jealousy when Val goes off with the photographer and Maria’s gaze at Val’s body as she sleeps, exposed and wearing only a thong, after returning from her date. Val’s sickness on the roadside that night remains unexplained: did she have too much to drink, or is she experiencing revulsion after her encounter with the photographer? Val’s thong in this scene contrasts sharply with her boyish boxer briefs in the swimming scene with Maria. And there are moments of emotional and physical closeness between the two women that might pass for sexual tension.

But Maria is also given the opportunity in the film to declare that she is “straight,” and a “lesbian subtext,” to borrow the phase Peter Matthews applied to All About Eve, might be even more a matter of performance here than was Margo’s need to play the married woman in the earlier film. As we have seen, the sense of identity of the actors, Maria and Val, is confused with the roles Helena and Sigrid that they take on in rehearsal. It would seem to follow, then, that what we are witnessing in Maria’s attraction to Val and Val’s conflicted response might be artifacts of their becoming the lesbian couple Helena and Sigrid.

If sexuality is taken up more overtly in Sils Maria, Maria’s aging is framed in a context of more rapid generational change fostered by developments in media technology. An evolution of the mediascape was already a theme of All About Eve, with Hollywood presented throughout as threatening and cheapening the sacred institution of the theatre. Bill is warned about its dangers by Eve, and she, herself, is set to leave for Hollywood following the Sarah Siddons award banquet. For Assayas, there will be additional layers to unpack, and the change that is in the background in All About Eve moves to the foreground in Clouds of Sils Maria: Maria is an important stage actor, a film star in European art cinema, and even known to audiences of Hollywood blockbusters. In fact, the career of Maria Enders, apparently born in the early 1970s, corresponds to one stage of media convergence that is now giving way to the next stage, the evolution of the Internet and social media.

The real stars of the opening scene of Sils Maria are the cell phones and tablet that allow Val and Maria to swim in a media sea while on the train to Zurich. But Val can handle two smartphones and a tablet at once, while Maria reads a newspaper and writes longhand, only accepting Internet gossip when it suits her. “I thought we despised the Internet,” Val needles her. And Val and Maria cannot agree on the value of the Jo-Ann Ellis’s cartoon-like films, Val telling her clearly how she is out of touch with this reality, not because she has aged, but because the world is rapidly changing. Val asks Maria at one point, “what world do you live in?” And in answer to Maria’s comment that Christopher Giles is only “uber famous … on their planet,” she declares: “Their planet has a name, it’s called the real world.” Her frustration with Maria must in part come from a sense that she is so much more competent at navigating the contemporary world than this older woman. Enter Jo-Ann, a product and artist of social-media stardom, and a pop-culture icon in campy sci-fi films that are totally discordant with the tradition of European auteur cinema (as practiced by Assayas in films such as Summer Hours, L’heure d’été, 2008).

In All About Eve, all of the talk about love of the theater is nostalgic, as well as blatantly ironic in an exemplary major-studio film almost half a century after the film industry first plundered Broadway. And the nostalgia might seem to extend to classical Hollywood, in decline since the 1948 Paramount case, with many Americans moving to the suburbs and shifting their attention to television. A similar nostalgia for cinema is present in Assayas’s film, as Maria seems to deplore the culture of blockbusters where acting becomes “hanging from wires” in front of green screens, not to mention Jo-Ann’s film and the newer technologies of Internet and social media. As Margo remains a figure of the theater, Maria remains at heart a figure of European art cinema; in the young director introduced at the end of Sils Maria, who admires the values represented by Maria (and by Juliette Binoche) we can see a poignant, self-reflective note from Assayas--his film is old-fashioned, heavily scripted, talky, and full of ideas, as is All About Eve.12

And this is the final layer of the comparison between Clouds of Sils Maria and All About Eve, their extra-textual dimensions. Margo Channing carries with her the weight of Davis’s star persona, but with the character of Maria created specifically for Juliette Binoche, Sils Maria could build more systematically on her history. “La Binoche,” as the French refer to her, is the preeminent female actor of her generation. She had become a star in important French films, in major international productions, and in big-budget Hollywood movies – even the shortest list from her fifty-four titles before Sils Maria suggests the scope of her movie career.13 She is known to have selected less-commercial films because of a script or a director she wanted to work with. She had performed in marquee theatrical productions of Chekhov, Pirandello, and Pinter, and she had spoken out on issues such as the imprisonment of Iranian director Jafar Panahi. Viewers cannot watch Sils Maria without confusing star with character as they do Bette Davis with Margo Channing. Throughout his career, Assays has been adept at using celebrities to complicate his films,14 and beyond Binoche, the public lives of Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz bleed into the portrayal of generational contrast with Binoche/Maria. Stewart brings her fame from the Twilight series (2008-2012), as well as social media and YouTube scandal reminiscent of Jo-Ann’s in Sils Maria, celebrity that includes openness in her sexual orientation.15 Moretz similarly brings her career history: she too was a child actor, becoming popular in films such The Amityville Horror (2005) when she was eight years old, and later Kick Ass (2010) and Kick Ass 2 (2013).

One particularly significant extra-textual thread relates to Assayas’s relationship with Binoche, which dates to 1985 when he wrote with André Téchiné Rendez-Vous, Binoche’s breakthrough film in France. In creating Clouds of Sils Maria for her twenty-nine years later, he is working with an actor who is now more Helena than Sigrid. Rendez Vous presented a young Binoche playing a provincial girl whose passionate emotional encounters in Paris as she strives to become an actress prepare her for success in a production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The closing shot of Sils Maria can be read as echoing that of Binoche’s face at the moment of realization and change that closes Rendez-Vous, with Nina (Binoche) about to go on stage as Juliet.

It is especially this postmodern emphasis by Assayas on the openness of textual boundaries that invites a reading of his film to include his knowledge and ours of All About Eve. As he has said, Clouds of Sils Maria is not All About Eve, but just as clearly his film embraces a cinematic past that includes All About Eve, a marker of the distance travelled, cultural evolution, and the passage of time. Margo Channing and Maria Enders are characters who experience and dramatize a process also experienced by Mankiewicz, Davis, Assayas, and Binoche. As the world evolves, a new Margo and a new Eve are different characters, in a different film, adapted to a new era increasingly defined by convergence of cultural spaces, times, and media.


1 His father, under the name Jacques Remy, worked closely with Raoul Lévy, a producer riding the success of Et Dieu… Créa la femme (1956). Eventually Assayas would find internships on productions in France, Geneve, and at Pinewood Studios in England, all through his father’s “old buddies” [“chez des vieux copins”].

2 “…Je sortait pas mal, j’écrivais dans la presse branchée, en fait j’etais l’un des seul à faire le pont entre le cinéma and cette modernité.” (Assayas, chapter 2, “Mai 68 et après.”)

3 Among other contributions Assays edited a special issue entitled Made in China: Taipei, Hong-Kong, Shanghai, Pekin. He produced a long retrospective interview with Ingmar Bergman and later published an extended essay on Kenneth Anger.

4 In Cahiers 10, 1952, All About Eve is number five in a list of the best films of 1951—one through four are films by Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson, Vittorio De Sica, and Luis Buñuel. For an example of the Cahiers critics’ admiration of Mankiewicz, see Jean Domarchi, “Le Fer dans la plaie,” Cahiers du Cinéma 63, October 1956. (Hiller, 245-6)

5 Riefenstahl made her first screen appearance as the star of Franck’s The Holy Mountain (1926), and Franck edited The Blue Light (1932), the film that brought her to Hitler’s attention. Additionally, Sils Maria was the summer home of Frederick Nietzsche during the last ten years of his life, where he explored the idea of an eternal return. Joël Magny links Nietzsche to Sils Maria and to Arnold Franck’s filming of the Maloja snake, suggesting that “among possible readings of Nietzsche, we note that the recurrence that animates the cosmos doesn’t free anyone from having to choose their own way, a decision which confronts all the characters in Assayas’s films.” [my translation] (Magny)

6 See for example Jon Frosch in The Atlantic, May 24, 2014, or John Powers in Vogue, April 9, 2015.

7 “I won’t be able to make the payment—circumstances between heaven and earth…. But to whom am I telling this? Hope you understand. I remain your friend, Petra von Kant.”

8 Mankiewicz has suggested that the casting of Baxter would allow him to take advantage of her similarity in appearance to Colbert, further underscoring the point of like replacing like: it “gave another dimension to the story,” he said. “We lost that shading.” (Chandler, 185)

9 These never developed, according to Mankiewicz, who found her professional and delighted to be working with an excellent script. (Carey, 86-7.)

10 Joseph Mankiewicz has said that Davis was not originally offered the part because “throughout that period she was filming Payment on Demand [Curtis Bernhardt, 1951] and was therefore considered hopelessly unavailable.” (Carey, 71-2)

11 Barbara Leaming’s interpretation represents the alternative to this, an insistence that Margo is a reversal of all Davis’s prior roles as an independent woman. “The most potent symbol of wartime female independence and self-sufficiency appeared suddenly to accept and even to recommend the retrograde sexual politics of the 1950s. Casting off the boldness and daring that Davis’s powerful female characters had once adamantly insisted upon, Margo Channing loudly declared herself unable to live without her man: a declaration rendered all the more astonishing by Margo’s vividly established sauciness and theatrically.” (Leaming, 245)

12 We should remember that Assayas, like Mankiewicz, was first a screenwriter, and continued to see the importance of writing in the process of elaborating films, though he manages to marry that commitment to a process of working with actors that yields spontaneous performances. (Assayas)

13 From Andre Techiné’s Rendez-Vous (1985), through The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1991), Lovers on the Bridge (1991), Three Colors: Blue (1993), The English Patient (1996), Caché (2005), and even Godzilla (2014) the same year that she made Sils Maria.

14 As in Irma Vep, where he had used Jean-Pierre Leaud and Maggie Cheung in ways that appealed respectively to audience knowledge of the French New Wave and to Cheung’s international stardom. Many similar instances throughout his body of work, if less easily identifiable by non-French audiences, are documented in Assayas par Assayas.

15 See Internet coverage of her affair with Director Rupert Sanders and public apology to fellow Twilight star Robert Pattinson, or her affair with Alicia Cargile and public statements that she sees no need to define her sexuality.

Works Cited

All About Eve. Dir. Joseph Mankiewicz. Perf. Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm. Twentieth-Century Fox, 1950. Film. Twentieth-Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2008. DVD.

Assayas, Olivier, and Jean-Michel Frodon. Assayas par Assayas: des debuts aux Destinées sentimental(Paris: Stock, 2014). Kindle file.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Perf. Margit Carstensen, Hanna Schygulla, Irm Hermann. Filmverlag der Autoren, Tango Film, 1972. Film. Criterion, 2015. DVD.

Carey, Gary, with Joseph Mankiewicz. More about All About Eve. New York: Random House, 1972. Print.

Chandler, Charlotte. The Girl Who Walked Home Alone: Bette Davis, a Personal Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. Print.

Clouds of Sils Maria. Dir. Olivier Assayas. Perf. Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz. CG Cinéma, 2014. Film. Paramount Pictures, 2015. DVD.

Hillier, Jim. Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1950s, Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave.  Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985. Print.

Irma Vep. Dir. Olivier Assayas. Perf. Maggie Cheung, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Nathalie Richard. Dacia Films, Canal +, 1996. Film. Fox Lorber. DVD.

Jones, Kent, ed. Olivier Assayas. Vienna: SYNEMA, 2012. Print.

Leaming, Barbara. Bette Davis. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2003. Print.

Lukenbill, Mark. “Interview: Olivier Assayas.” Slate. April 1, 2015. http://www.slantmagazine.com/features/article/interview-olivier-assayas

Magny, Joël. “Sils Maria d’Olivier Assays,” Les Fiches Cinéma. Encyclopaedia Universalis, 2016. Kindle file.

Matthews, Peter. “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant: the Great Pretender.” https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/3429-the-bitter-tears-of-petra-von-kant-the-great-pretender

Persona. Dir. Ingmar Bergman. Perf. Liv Ullmann, Bibi Anderssen. Svensk Filmindustri, 1966. Film. Criterion, 2014. DVD.

Rendez-vous. Dir. André Téchiné. Perf. Lambert Wilson, Juliette Binoche, Wadeck Stanczek, Jean-Louis Trintingnant. Films A2, T. Films, 1985. Film. Home Vision Entertainment, 2005. DVD.

Summer Hours (L’heure d’été). Dir. Olivier Assayas. Perf. Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, Jérémie Renier, Edith Scob, Dominique Raymond. MK2, France 3, Canal+, 2008. Film. Criterion, 2010. DVD Das Wolkenphänomen in Maloja. Dir. Arnold Fanck. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQMT5v0yk9o . July 27. 2016. Film.