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Highbrow No Homo: The Art of Queer Representation in "Clouds of Sils Maria"

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.

Shannon Keating is a writer and filmmaker. She lives in Brooklyn. Tweet her @__keating. 


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Comments

21 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Bi-erasure

Or maybe Adele's character is bisexual? Why is that so hard to suggest? WE EXIST!

Maybe because Adele's

Maybe because Adele's character is consistently portrayed as a lesbian up until her affair? Her utter apathy toward men--including the guy she cheats on Emma with!--is constantly driven home by Kechiche, especially in pointed contrast with her clear interest in and attraction toward women (first her classmate, then Emma). She is also shown to be deeply closeted at work even as she's living with her girlfriend of 3+ years.

If she was bisexual, it was Kechiche's responsibility--as the director and therefore arbiter of what aspects of his characters' lives are relevant enough to include--to show that to us. It comes across pretty clearly to me that she was meant to be read as a lesbian--unless Kechiche is significantly more irresponsible and hapless as a director than I thought.

Are you sure about that Keely?...

Do you believe all of this could be said for the same with men? Have you ever met a gay man who for whatever reason had sex with women even after being out of the closet? If a person is gay/lesbian (it all means homosexual of course) then they would NEVER have sex with someone of the opposite sex. They are not attracted to them or interested in them at all. And that would never change. I thought it was made obvious that Adele was meant to be bi. Especially after what she did.

Actually, Billie, I have

It's not incredibly common, but yes, it can happen: people who come out as gay at one point in their lives discovering later that they've got some attraction to the opposite sex, OR people who always thought they were straight falling for someone of the same sex. Both women AND men. There are support groups.

Now of course we can argue about whether they were really gay or straight in the first place... they may have thought so at the time... but the point is, a lot of the cultural assumptions we hold about sexual identity simply aren't true for everyone all of the time (e.g. all this "would never" stuff). To quote the famous Alfred Kinsey, "The world is not only made up of sheep and goats."

Maybe the Kinsey scale

Maybe the Kinsey scale exists for some people, I mean sure I believe that it's real. But definitely not for everybody. A LOT of people, and perhaps most people, regardless of sexual orientation will flat out tell you that they are 100% one way and that's it forever.

IF she was apathetic

IF she was apathetic toward men like you say, then why did the writers of the film just HAVE to have her have an affair with a man at all? Why not with a woman like she should have. Would they have had a character of the opposite gender who is also homosexual do the same thing.

Thank you, yes!

I scrolled down to make that comment and was so glad to see you had made it already. Why is it still the assumption that a character who is involved with a woman and then a man (or vice versa) is actually straight or is experimenting or is confused?

Exasperating, especially when it keeps happening in discussions about queerness and particularly in this case where it's lamented that one character's choice to sleep with a man cancels out her queerness! Come on, Bitch and Shannon Keating, I expect better!

Um Halla.....

Do you believe all of that is the same with men? Would an equal number of out queer/gay men choose to have sex with women for whatever reason? But seriously though, gays and lesbians (which all means homosexual) would NEVER do anything sexually with the opposite sex since they are not attracted to the opposite sex. Anyone with a sexual orientation is BORN that way and nothing can ever change that.

Um Bille...

I'm not quite getting what your argument is. Do I believe there are also bisexual men? Yes, of course. As a bisexual ciswoman I am also aware that I was BORN this way and nothing has ever changed that.

Thank you sugarmercy!

I'm SO annoyed with the idea that "sexuality is fluid" when it's not! Anyone who is gay would never be sexual with the opposite sex, just like anyone who is straight would never do that with the same sex. Stuff like this is just insulting to the queer community.

Honestly this is the

Honestly this is the stupidest comment. Your language implies you are speaking for ALL queer people. A fluid sexuality is very real the a large number of individuals. And if you think this is insulting to the queer community you honestly haven't thought about this very hard and are just basic. Get your oppressive views out of here.

Apparently I don't exist

Apparently I don't exist then.

This entire article will

This entire article will still be seen as bad for homosexual women. It is still considered insulting to suggest that queer women are "sexually fluid". For most human beings that's just not true at all. If a person is gay, they are BORN that way, and nothing can ever change that. And they would NEVER want to have sex with someone of the opposite sex. Everything that was said here, do you believe it's true to be the same with men?

Oh one more thing....

Another problem with the Clouds of Sils Maria is her saying, "I've always been straight". A big fat "DUH" would be in order. Whatever sexual orientation you are, you are BORN that way and you cannot change who you are. EVER. A so called "natural progression" in "sexual fluidity" is just insulting to a number of queer (and even straight) people. Maybe SOME men and women are like that, but most are not. And again, if this article was about those two films but the genders were switched would people have still liked them or believed in them? Would you mention how it's "understandable" that a queer man's "natural progression" of "sexual fluidity" was going to happen?

Sure

I agree, if someone is a homo I highly doubt they would do anything sexual or even feel attraction to the opposite gender. It's just not possible. And if someone is straight it's the same thing only the other way around. So bisexuality is the only logical conclusion to all of this.

"a homo"? seriously, you know

"a homo"? seriously, you know that makes you sound like a homophobe right?

Won't be watching this movie.

Won't be watching this movie. Adding to the queer representation issues, the plot sounds increbly ageist.

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An even better question is......

if the character in blue is the warmest colour is going to cheat on her girlfriend then why does it HAVE to be with a guy? why supposedly make her a lesbian if she's just going to do that with a guy. It makes no sense.

Wow

Wow you know I would love to see those movies where the characters are exactly the same but the genders are switched.