Plastic Entities: A Note on Fades in CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA (Assayas, 2014)

Clouds of Sils Maria will remain with me for a long time. Olivier Assayas’ film is both an intimate chamber drama, as we observe the understated hints and “soft” ambiguity in a developing relationship between two women (one of which is played perfectly by Kristen Stewart, I find myself surprised to say), and an almost Bressonian experiment with the “plastic” qualities of structure.

The film relies, quite conspicuously in this context, on intertitles to structure the plot at the macro level–“Part II,” “Epilogue,” etc.–and plays a keen parametric game with snail fades (to black) and recurring compositions, like the shot of the two women coming over a hill where they both disappear for 3-4 seconds of screen time only to re-emerge (the last time, only one steps back into the frame).

With respect to the fades, I almost got the impression while watching the film that Ossayas had in mind this passage from Noël Burch’s Theory of Film Practice (1967), with the difference being that he employs fades instead of dissolves: “Bresson […], while seemingly continuing to assign conventional meaning to dissolves, in fact uses them as a structuring element, as both a rhythmic and a plastic entity, thereby adopting the silent filmmakers’ freer approach. What strikes one in this respect in his Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped and Pickpocket is Bresson’s concern with making the dissolve into an autonomous formal device…” (p.42).