En route to Zurich, where she’s to accept an award in his honour, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) learns that her old mentor, the reclusive Swiss playwright Wilhelm Melchior, has died. Delivered bluntly to Maria by Val (Kristen Stewart), her personal assistant, a resourceful young American, the news contributes to the growing sense of things ending for Maria, or at least transitioning into something else. Maria is in the midst of a messy divorce. Despite the obvious incentives, she’s declining to reprise her role in a super hero movie. She may or may not be accepting a role in a London revival of Maloja Snake, the Melchoir play that made her famous, except that when she first did the play 25 years ago she was the young seductress; this time around she’s to play the opposing role, that of the middle-aged business woman seduced and shattered by the younger woman, who would now be played by ostensibly talented celebrity train wreck Jo-Ann (Chloë Grace Moretz). The high-concept casting is tantalizing, and the director is said to be brilliant, but Maria feels vulnerable. She’s tampering with her legacy, acknowledging her age in a viciously age-phobic industry, stepping through the looking glass.
Which is not so different from what Binoche is doing by playing Maria, a character very close to Binoche, written specifically for Binoche by writer/director Olivier Assayas, with whom the actress worked on 2008’s exquisite Summer Hours. Clouds of Sils Maria brims with such slippage, between real life and the movies, between the play Maria is working up the courage to act in and the fraught dynamic between Maria and Val, who retreat to Melchoir’s home in the spectacular, mountainous Sils Maria to run lines and debate the underlying values in conflict in the play. Is it better to be young and arrogant or mature and wise? Certain elements of Clouds recall Ingmar Bergman’s Persona—the borrowed country home, the imperious actress and the fresh-faced helper in psychic face-off—while Maloja Snake is itself inspired by Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. These touchstones, like Binoche and her own stature as a star, are just some of the things hovering in our shared culture that Assayas is responding to and sculpting into something unique, arresting and ultimately haunting. The film is so rife of gestures, ideas, events, subtle little moments in which something suddenly changes. I first saw it nine months ago and it lingered in my memory as an uncontainable thing. I just watched it for the second time and had that peculiar experience of revisiting a film and remembering that films unfold one scene at a time.
While retaining a rawness, post-Twilight Stewart gives a far more crafted performance as Val than in anything I’d seen her do—the twitching and fidgeting has been reduced to a minimum. Moretz too seems to be adopting another, more intriguing register with Assayas and company. Jo-Ann spills over with faux-stoned bad girl affectations when Maria watches her on trash TV shows, only to transform into a young artist longing to reinvent herself when she and Maria finally meet. Binoche is as inventive, bold, playful and as adverse to the slightest falsity as she’s ever been. Her Maria is mercurial, capable of exploding into withering laughter, aware of her power while also aware that her powers could fail her any moment. In the film’s first part she’s the epitome of glamour; in the second and third she cuts her hair and scrubs her face clean. She looks her age, I guess, with a new nakedness, as if to say, If I’m going to be the older woman, let’s get this over with. She’s also radiant, as I imagine she always will be. But radiance quiets with time, and the film’s final, quietly brutal scene leaves Maria in a place similar to its first scenes: we see a woman on the move, between things, figuring out what to do next, and how best to survive the journey.