There’s a place in the Swiss Alps where the clouds seep between two peaks and pour, serpentine, into an adjoining valley. The “Maloja snake” is the title weather phenomenon in “Clouds of Sils Maria,” director Oliver Assayas’ brilliant new film.
In “Sils Maria,” “Maloja Snake” is also the name of a play by fictional dramaturge Wilhelm Melchior detailing the ill-fated romance of two women, Sigrid and Helena. The former is only a teenager, reckless and charmingly devious. Helena, her middle-aged counterpart, hires Sigrid as an office assistant and is soon enthralled by the younger girl. Like so much art, however, the true nature of Sigrid’s relationship with Helena is open to interpretation.
Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), a prominent but aging French actress, played Sigrid in her youth and struggles to reconcile her own middle-age with her original, Lolita-esque take on “Maloja Snake.” Enders finds that her interpretation of Melchior’s play meets with resistance from Valentine (Kristen Stewart), her wisecracking, punkish personal assistant.
Assayas deftly explores the concept of life imitating art — or is it vice versa? When Enders is called on to act, again, in “Maloja Snake,” this time as Helena, it seems as though her own worst fears have been brought to the fore. A younger, lesser-known actress is cast to play Sigrid. In an actress’s eternal battle to stay relevant, young and appealing in the eyes of her public, Enders has taught herself to ward off any intimations of age.
As Enders, Binoche strikes a careful balance between world-weary cynicism and youthful outrage. In recalling her former co-star’s interpretation of Helena, Enders fumes: “I remember Susan Rosenberg and the disgust she inspired in me by putting herself in the shoes of this defeated woman.” Defeat — giving up, growing old. There’s a sense of art mirroring life too closely for comfort. Enders, recognizing this, shies away from the role.
Valentine is quick to point out that Helena’s apparent weakness should be understood as a source of artistic honesty — her vulnerability becomes more apparent with time. Enders disagrees, and the dueling interpretations of “Maloja” blossom into a more personal conflict.
As with most of “Sils Maria,” Assayas treats every interaction as a performance in its own right. What’s real? What’s playacting? The tension between Enders and Valentine unfolds through their read-throughs of the script, which Assayas blends seamlessly into their day-to-day conversation. Valentine hints that she’s more than Enders’ personal assistant — though Enders is admittedly straight, Assayas maintains a kind of electricity between the two, as when they strip to go for a swim in a mountain lake. During a hike in the mountains, Valentine threatens to leave her post as an assistant. There’s a brief moment of panic before we realize, with some relief, that we’re only hearing Valentine-as-Sigrid, who levels the threat at her employer, Helena, in the parallel world of “Maloja Snake.”
Each moment of absolute distinction between real and play is satisfying, to Assayas’ credit. The nebulous in-between is just as wonderful to watch, though. Like the hauntingly beautiful landscape of Sils Maria, the action of the film seems to be an island of dream-like characters and conflicts in the midst of a burgeoning movie industry.
Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz), who’s been cast to play the Sigrid to Enders’ Helena, is Enders’ rude awakening. The young, rash actress with a reputation for hard partying and bad press amuses Enders, who dismisses her antics from afar. There’s a significant build-up to Jo-Ann’s appearance that seems to fall a bit short (she’s around long enough to cause a paparazzi firestorm and insult Enders before opening night), but there’s also catharsis in Enders’ eventual recognition of herself in Jo-Ann.
Assayas begs us to consider the proximity of art to life, the transience of time and celebrity.
Contact Madelyne Xiao at madelyne ‘at’ stanford.edu.