Clouds of Sils Maria
Clouds of Sils Maria, drama, rated R, in English and French with subtitles, Violet Crown, 3.5 chiles
The aging curve for men and women is notoriously unfair. Nowhere is this more keenly felt than in the acting business, where lead roles for women over forty dry up like California orchards, while men go on getting work and getting the girl well into their Medicare years.
Olivier Assayas (Carlos, Summer Hours), challenged by the actress Juliette Binoche to create a story reflecting the feminine experience, has come up with a drama about an aging (yes, that word, even for a woman as agelessly beautiful as Binoche) star coming face to face with the specter of her younger self. The movie has echoes of the 1950 Bette Davis classic All About Eve — and in the way it endlessly reflects its characters upon themselves, it may also stir memories of the great mirror scene in Lady From Shanghai.
French movie star Maria Enders (Binoche) is en route to Zurich to accept an award for an old friend, the reclusive Swiss writer-director Wilhelm Melchior, when her young American assistant, Val (Kristen Stewart), juggling cellphones and dropped calls on the speeding train, gets the news that Melchior is dead. The tribute becomes a eulogy, and plans Maria and the playwright had been discussing for a sequel to the play that made them famous a generation earlier go for naught.
The play, Maloja Snake, was about a middle-aged executive, Helena, who falls disastrously in love with her manipulative young assistant, Sigrid. As an eighteenyear-old, Maria made her breakthrough in stage and film productions playing Sigrid. At the Melchior memorial, she is approached by an acclaimed young stage director, Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), about appearing in a London revival of the play — but now, in the cruel cycle of time, she is asked to play Helena. A teenage actress, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), wildly famous for superhero films and off-screen escapades, will take the part of Sigrid.
Maria has all sorts of reasons for refusing, but she reluctantly accepts, retiring to Melchior’s chalet (put at her disposal by his widow) in the Swiss mountain village of Sils Maria to work on the role with Val. The location has two haunting undercurrents. It was here in 1881, in the rarified air of the Alps, that Nietzsche, “6,000 feet beyond man and time,” mused on the concept of eternal recurrence in Thus Spake Zarathustra. And it’s here that the phenomenon of the Maloja Snake can be observed — a serpentine trail of clouds that surges up the valley, presaging a change in the weather.
As Maria runs dialogue with Val in the chalet, and during their mountain hikes, the line between script and reality is constantly blurred, much as Assayas muddies the line between real life and his movie characters, and between his movie characters and the play they are rehearsing. (Thirty years ago Assayas co-scripted Rendez-vous, the André Téchiné film that made Binoche a star.) The erotic tension between Helena and Sigrid is reflected in the relationship between Maria and Val, pointedly in a skinny-dipping scene in a frigid mountain lake. Jo-Ann Ellis’ superstardom in a pop-movie sensation reverberates in the casting of Stewart, huge for her Twilight vampire films (and the first American winner of France’s César Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her work here).
Both actresses are terrific as they navigate the rapids of cross-generational prejudices and power exercises. Maria is an actress, and in Binoche’s self-aware performance she is always on, playing the role of herself as the diva in situations public and private. There is a moment or two when she hits an obvious note, but even that is not out of keeping with her character. Stewart, who, like Ellis, is using this vehicle as a declaration of independence from her pop-superstar image, plays with a deadpan subtlety that flares into outbursts where she stakes her right to her own opinions and the validity of her youth culture in the face of Maria’s mocking condescension.
That crosscurrent of modern culture and technology is constantly buffeting the characters in Assayas’ probing screenplay. Maria is contemptuous of the internet and of Google, but they are where she turns to for information about the girl who’s usurping her role as Sigrid, or for temperamental Skyping sessions with her agent. When, near the end, another young director approaches Maria about appearing in a new superhero film, she turns him down with a patronizing smile, but you can’t be sure there won’t be a follow-up meeting, given the brave new world of encroaching age and the direction of contemporary cinema she finds herself facing. Maria is constantly laughing at the pop culture that Val passionately defends; by the end, it is slithering around her like the sinuous clouds snaking up the Maloja Valley.
There’s a change in the weather: Kristen Stewart and Juliette Binoche