How do you solve a problem like Maria?
Olivier Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) is remarkably nebulous and unstable yet intense. There is a plot, but the plot--aging actress asked to perform in play that made her famous, only in a different role--matters less than the intricately staged and written scenes between said actress and her young assistant, at times rehearsing the play, at times acting out their fascinatingly knotty relationship.
Juliette Binoche is the still-beautiful Maria Enders who first won fame playing the heartless up-and-comer Sigrid in fictional director Wilhelm Melchior's breakout play (and later film) Maloja Snake, about an insecure older woman and an ambitious young girl. She and her assistant Valentine (rhymes with 'quarantine') are on their way to a film festival tribute in honor of Melchior when news arrives that the director has died; an intended celebration has become a wake, and long-ago hidden memories and previously traumatized nerve endings have been accordingly exposed.
Life goes on and so do careers, and in between dramatic confrontations and confessions and reminisces are prospective meetings with directors and producers, for Maria extra pressure and a renewed sense of commitment to do Maloja Snake, only this time as the older Helena. The part of Sigrid goes to American star Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz) who has achieved near-instantaneous fame by starring in a gigantic Hollywood comic-book movie (is there any other kind nowadays?).* Maria is both insulted and intrigued: she has always considered Sigrid hers, but acknowledges she's past the right age to reprise the role. Valentine suggests that Helena is Sigrid, only older and more psychologically brittle--all Maria had to do was grow into her present age.
*(Some folks find Assayas' depiction of aforementioned comic-book movie amateurish; I think it's both funny sendup and stylish Eurotrash improvement a la Mike Hodges' Flash Gordon, complete with burgundy slushie hair and cheap plastic costumes)
That's basically the first chapter setting up the film's complex premise, along the way skewering the hypocrisies and abuse suffered and inflicted by celebrities, everything rendered irrelevant (and not a little ridiculous) by the implacable fact of death (Maria's reaction is in my book the most honest--she just wants to go home--which of course is the one thing she can't do). The second chapter is if anything an intensification of the themes in the first: the two-character play, rehearsed over and over by Maria and her assistant while hiking the eponymous town's gorgeous mountain passes. The snake itself is an actual meteorological phenomenon: a herd of clouds rushing down a narrow valley serpentine fashion, a beautifully palpable movement of intangible vapors (a good description of the film itself). At one point Assayas gives us silent-film footage of the snake winding its course down the pass--said excerpts borrowed if I remember right from a 1924 film by Arnold Fanck, Leni Riefenstahl's mentor.
Assayas confuses us by constantly shooting the pair passing the camera (which acts like an intimate invisible onlooker) in what sounds like a fierce quarrel: are Maria and Valentine at a rocky point of their relationship? Are Helena and Sigrid having another lovers' spat? Were they in the play arguing and moved on to real-life debate or vice-versa? Then there's the parallels: Helena and Sigrid are lovers, and (warning: crucial plot point revealed) while nothing physical happens between Maria and Valentine you feel the thickening gel ready to set and trap both in a state of anguished suspension.
Perhaps Assayas' biggest joke is to have Kristen Stewart--the biggest most recognizable of the three leads--play Maria's assistant. Stewart has always come across as an intelligent actor; if anything it's the moments when she's constantly called upon (in the Twilight movies) to play dewy innocent that she stumbles--as if she knows she's above this kind of crap, is too honest an actor to hide her contempt for the material from us. Stewart's Sigrid reveals a smoldering sexual passion, her Valentine a bewildered vulnerability (how did I ever fall into this situation?); it's the knowingly sexy, multitasking Stewart familiar to us from her Adventureland days and we miss her.
All that said the film is Maria's story and Binoche from the first frame on pockets role and picture. Roughly of the same age as her character, Binoche is the human consciousness that reacts to the various scenarios--death, sex, subversion--thrown her way with quicksilver dexterity, her emotions like fish flashing beneath a pond, surface kept smooth by a vigilant celebrity persona (cameras watching, musn't lose poise).
Shades of All About Eve (tension and jealousy between an aging celebrity and aspiring starlet)! Then at a crucial unexpected point Assayas pulls a L'Avventura, and Maria is left anguished, forlorn; all the intricate emotional and psychological links have been yanked, and she feels the gap like a throbbing wound. The final chapter depicts aftereffects: Maria confronted with a fully formed Sigrid, her Valentine grapples with several realizations at once--one of them that Jo-Ann has grown to (or always had but carefully hid) a strength rivaling hers. Age and youth, film and theater, subtext and declared text, reality and fiction collide in a misshapen multiple-vehicle collision; survivors struggle to pull themselves out of the steaming emotional wreckage.
DVD released 7.14.15
First published in Businessworld, 9.3.15