I saw Olivier Assayas’ CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA twice in order to fully absorb the breadth of this complicated, though seemingly simple, story of a forty something actress Maria Enders (a radiant Juliette Binoche) who is asked to be in a revival of a theatrical production titled Majola Snake that made her famous twenty years earlier when she played the ingenue Sigrid, filled with the confidence and callousness of youth who seduces her boss Helena, an older woman; their subsequent love “affair” incinerates the very ground that Helena stands on propelling her to suicide. The twist here is that a new director is asking Enders, a now celebrated actress to perform the part of the mature woman devastated by desire. Generational differences extrude into every aspect of Maria’s world - physical and psychological boundaries become blurred and the fictional script blends into reality, past memories and present relationships. This is a film about film as well as life. Does a great actor lose oneself utterly in a part? What happens when you take on another persona and grope to come up for air to retrieve the you that you once were?
We sense the power of Sils Maria a hauntingly exquisite municipality in the Swiss Alps, where the actress and her young assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart who masterfully holds her own in every scene with Binoche) go to rehearse to prepare for the upcoming play in a house cradled in the snowy valleys of the majestic mountains which belonged to Maria’s beloved mentor, the playwright William Melchoir, who dies unexpectedly at the beginning of the film, literally setting the stage for the ensuing drama. Against this breathtaking backdrop the individual is subsumed by the beauty of the surroundings; the upcoming stage production, Majola Snake, refers to the clouds which slowly wind through the valleys blanketing the view with a blindingly beautiful soft white mist - foreshadowing the fog and confusion of the two women who are wrestling with a dialogue which gets unhinged from the pages of the script and infiltrates their precarious realities.
Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart’s interactions both fuse and clash as their role-playing illuminates each one’s frailties and strengths. From the onset of the movie we see what an efficient and capable personal assistant the lanky, beautiful, two-cellphones-in hand Valentine is, always making sure that Maria Ender’s busy professional activity runs smoothly. Once they start reading scenes together, the delicate hierarchy begins to transform, and the gap between their years becomes a source of differing tastes and outlooks. There is an undercurrent of sexual tension which is verbally unacknowledged, but at the same time obviously acknowledged visually; Juliette Binoche, her hair now closely cropped, dresses more severely - the wardrobe revealing her amalgamation into Helena and the disorientation and turbulence of her own yearnings.
On the Internet, we catch our first glimpse of the “scandalous” 18 year old, Jo Ann (a blooming Chloe Grace Moretz,) - the stereotypical Lindsay Lohan-type actress who will play Sigrid, her videoed exploits being Googled by Maria Enders. The Bette Davis classic All About Eve comes to mind, but this upstart is a contemporary version, self assured and fearless - with a belief in youth’s immortality trumping those whose futures are shortened by the labyrinth of passing time.
The men in this movie are ancillary - a writer, a director, a former lover - all functioning as vehicles in divulging snippets of the plot’s history, but all subordinate to the women who are portrayed with an intimacy unveiled through the emotional archaeology of attachment, passion, and the apprehensive challenge of ambiguous entanglements.