Life imitates art. Life is just a stage. Two common phrases that apply to Olivier Assayas’ Sils Maria and its central character, Maria Enders. An actress in the same age bracket as the one that portrays her, Juliette Binoche, she is confronted to face her career, her past, and her future through these two phrases, to find her own identity and define who she is and will be. Twenty years ago, she played the role of Sigrid in a play written by a dear friend, the playwright Wilhelm Melchior. Now she is offered the role of the other woman in the play, Helena, the boss of Sigrid, but also her lover. Reluctantly she accepts, and together with her personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) she travels to the Swiss town of Sils Maria, home of the recently deceased playwright, to rehearse her role. With Valentine during the line rehearsals taking on the role of Sigrid, a parallel is formed in the dynamics between these two women and the roles they are rehearsing for. As they recite their lines and try to dig deep into both characters, the line between reality and script blurs. Through Helena, Maria is forced to reflect on herself, her past, on getting older, and on getting rejected, a feeling an actress her age will have to get used to as the offering of roles will diminish. When the director of the play introduces Jo-Ann (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young and scandal-prone actress with a thriving Hollywood blockbuster career, as the one to take on the role of Sigrid, Maria has to look in the mirror and acknowledge the reflection of herself in this young and ambitious woman.
The intricacy of the intertwined stories of the two main characters (Maria and Valentine) and their characters of the play-within-a-play, and the way these women search their souls through those characters make for a fascinating acting duel between two actresses that are perceived to be on complete opposites of the spectrum (Binoche the well-respected thespian of highbrow fare; Stewart the Twilight girl). To her credit, the younger actress totally holds her own against her much-lauded opponent. Or perhaps it is not to her credit, maybe she just is this excellent actress, and we have just attributed a vacuousness to her because her early career choices fit into a certain mould.
Binoche meanwhile is forced into a very difficult role where she sort of plays herself. The soul searching of Maria must in at least some part also have been a journey for the actress into her own career and choices, and into the way her ageing (she just turned 50) affects that career and those choices. In a devastating scene at the end of the film, in a confrontation with Moretz as the embodiment of ‘the younger generation’, when the relevancy of her character Helena and by extension Maria herself is questioned and laid bare, one can’t help but think that for Binoche that extended even further to her own relevancy. Not that the French thesp will be led into oblivion any time soon, but there will come a time when she is relegated to supporting roles, and in her performance of that last scene in particular, the frustration of that fact shines through.
It is exactly this idea that makes the casting of this film, and Stewart in particular, so brilliant, as she is the reflection for most of the vacuity of Moretz’ character. All the better that Stewart turns out to be able to go toe to toe with her formidable opponent in the boxing match between their characters, even if she loses on points in the end. There is a generation between them, and the film’s sharp screenplay plays into this with Stewart’s Valentine being in the know of all that is happening in entertainment right now, often baffling a completely oblivious Binoche. The world around the latter is changing, and she can hardly keep up. And she feels it, and it scares her. And in a way you feel that to an extent it scares Binoche too. She no doubt drew from her own experiences to form this character, but the experiences with this character also form her again as an actress, definitely in this film and probably in her future career. This must have been one of the most difficult roles in her career, and she is not afraid to confront the danger in this part.
The setting of the Swiss mountains is perhaps a little bit on the nose in terms of the whole idea of fresh air clearing the head, but it does allow Assayas to introduce an enigmatic ‘character’ into the story, the Maloja Snake (incidentally also the title of the play; an indication of either character?). A meteorological phenomenon of clouds snaking their way through the Maloja pass near Sils Maria, and a signifier for the arrival of bad weather, this ‘character’ is repeatedly referred to, and becomes a metaphor for the slow passage of time. The fact that it signals bad weather reflects the influence of passing time on Maria’s life and career (and on Stewart’s ambiguous fate in the film, but we’ll leave it at that).
It also provides for some eerie images in an otherwise visually not very exciting film. This is all about the story and the two central characters, and a great cast of supporting players. Moretz is wonderful as the ambitious, cold starlet working her way to the top, and Hanns Zischler and Lars Eidinger put in fine work as the two directors of, respectively, the original version of the play and the new one. Musical cues from Händel to Primal Scream are tastefully handled, and the art direction nicely evokes the high society environments the characters move in. But above all this is Binoche’s and Stewart’s film, as well as Assayas’. His direction is confident in his lead actresses, gratuitous shot of Miss Stewart’s rear end be damned. It’s all in the dialogue, the context, and the performances, and the trio push each other to great heights. It is really disappointing that the film was not awarded for anything, certainly the screenplay or Binoche (perhaps with her co-star) would be deserved winners. There is a reason the ICS awarded both (and Screenplay was won in a landslide).