Written and Directed by Oliver Assayas | 124 min | The Criterion Channel
Remember the gifted storytellers in the wordy, if somewhat static, My Dinner With Andre? Or story-within-story pictures like The French Lieutenant’s Woman or Vanya on 42nd Street, where the overlay of a fiction in the central narrative both enlivens and informs what’s going on?
If you do, you’ll have a sense of the complex mysteries that await you in Sils Maria.
Juliette Binoche is Maria, a star of movies and theatre who decades ago, at the beginning of her career, was in a play called Majola Snake. The play is about a young woman, Sigrid, who has a torrid and tragic affair with a manager in an office, Helena, driving the older woman to suicide. Maria played Sigrid.
The play, named after a serpentine cloud formation in the Swiss Alps, was penned by a playwright friend of Maria’s, who dies just before she is to accept an award on his behalf. A hot young director, Klaus (Lars Eidinger), wants to cast her in a theatrical revival of Majola Snake, except this time with Maria in the role of Helena.
Maria is reluctant to take the part at first, but she eventually agrees. She retreats to the playwright’s home in the Alps in order to prepare , along with her personal assistant and friend, Valentine (Kristen Stewart). They run through lines, with Val playing Sigrid, and the edges begin to blur between the women’s relationship and that of the characters in the play.
Fascinatingly, Val is in many ways wiser than her employer and mentor, who suffers from a certain amount of vanity — an inability to embrace Helena and let go of the role that made her. Maria sees the elder character as weak and bowed by experience. They’re inside the play one moment, then discussing its contradictions the next, with Val calming and comforting Maria while also challenging her preconceptions.
The overlay of fictions and meta-fictions don’t end there: Freshly minted starlet Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz), who will be taking on Sigrid in the play, is a tabloid sensation, her personal life grist for the Hollywood gossip mill. Val and Maria check out her new film, of which we see a scene: It’s a cheesy-looking science fiction picture. Immediately following they discuss it, and Val makes the case that the fantasy genre is no less valid than any other dramatic structure — truth can exists there. She also defends Jo-Ann’s talent, despite the “tsunami” of tabloid attention being paid to her, even when it’s revealed Jo-Ann is having an affair with a married man.
There’s no getting around the parallels with Stewart’s own life. I don’t feel any obligation to go into the details — Google her if you’re curious — but it’s like she’s justifying her own professional and personal choices while in character. It’s a clever trick of the script and the casting, and not the movie’s only one.
Shot on location in the actual Sils Maria, in that famously non-commital nation of Switzerland, Maria and Val traipse along rocky paths into the mist, frequently getting lost as they work through their dynamic. Themes of age, mortality and vitality are thrown around, and you never get a sense of where it’s going, a delicious and too rare sensation at the movies these days.
Assayas is fond of frequent jump cuts, and just as frequent fade-to-blacks, giving the illusion of moving through time in fits and starts, a nice counterpoint to the wordiness of the script.
Delightfully, it’s not a melodrama, more a soft but cerebral satire, though at times the dialogue does feel like an intellectual exercise masquerading as the way people speak. It’s a script written by someone for whom French is their first language. Had all of this been in French, I don’t think the stiltedness would be noticeable.
Stewart is especially good here. It’s not that she’s doing a whole lot more than she did in Adventureland or The Runaways, two other movies I really liked her in, but in this context, and opposite the always wonderful Binoche, she’s the grounded voice of reason and truth, while still sustaining a certain mystique. The French Oscars, the Cesars, gave her an acting award for her work, the first American woman to ever receive one. (Adrian Brody picked up one in 2003.) She’s well deserving.
And if, in a final “epilogue” in London, it ends with a dose of uncertainty, I’m sure that was kind of the point: ambiguity is one of the (stated) themes. The meat of the movie is in its middle, where it’s a compelling two-hander all about love and the passage of time, what’s lost and what’s found.