Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart share an easy, engaging chemistry in Olivier Assayas’ multi-layered meta-feature, which explores life for ageing actresses, artistic integrity, guilt and regret through the dueling perspectives of its two leads. Binoche is Maria Enders, an international star asked to star in a revival of the two-hander play that made her famous 20 years ago, while Stewart plays her diligent personal assistant-cum-emotional buttress, Valentine. Add in Chloe Grace Moretz as a combustible Hollywood starlet with a TMZ-friendly reputation and the stage is set for an intriguing feast of shifting power dynamics and industry navel-gazing.
Assayas’ film, though, never truly achieves those lofty ambitions, becoming constricted by a monotonous assembly line of scenes in which Maria rehearses her lines for the new production with Val in the Swiss Alps, riven by anxiety about whether she should even have accepted the play’s older-woman role — a boss driven to suicide by her alluring young assistant Sigrid (the role that originally made Maria a star, now in the hands of Moretz’s feisty JoAnn). Assayas revealed at the press conference that the play-within-the-film was inspired by Fassbender’s “The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant,” delivering some of the meta to the narrative, and there are metaphorical elements at play, too, in the picturesque Alpine village that gives the film its name, a summer haunt of Frederic Nietzsche’s perched above a long valley that plays host to an unsettling meteorological occurrence known as the Cloud Phenomena of Maloja (“Maloja’s Snake” is the title of the play).
Setting his tale against majestic mountainscapes to convey a sense of timelessness, Assayas delivers on the gorgeous panoramic scenery and extracts commendable performances from his actresses. Of the three, it’s Stewart who registers most strongly, portraying a bright, confident young woman whose insecurities can’t help flare up in a relationship in which she must, by default, adopt the inferior role. She and Binoche share several compelling on-screen moments, one of the best being a comical encounter where Val tries to explain the human value of superhero films as Maria collapses in fits of laughter. It’s an ironic moment, too, given that Enders herself is known for playing a “mutant” in an “X-Men” style franchise. Later, Val gently skewers her highbrow boss’ love of celebrity gossip: “It’s not gossip, it’s information,” Maria retorts.
With “Sils Maria” conceived jointly by Binoche and Assayas, the French star is surefooted in her role. It’s obvious that one of her prime objectives is to not fall into the trap of making Maria one of those caustic, neurotic, tantrum and addiction-prone actresses we’re conditioned to expect in industry-oriented yarns. Rather, she is relaxed, intelligent, self-aware, and knows her own mind even as she prevaricates over speeches or ruminates about the number of suicides she’s experienced in her life.
Moretz has a blast as the badly-behaved teen star although her thinly-stretched plotline peters out into a somewhat listless “All About Eve”-esque finale. Still, her sequences do exude a goofy playfulness that Assayas perhaps should have tried implementing elsewhere in his feature-length musings on how a more erudite past has given way to our present-day tsunami of Google images, YouTube uploads and paparazzi packs, and the eventual annihilation of ageing actresses by their younger counterparts. Ultimately, his satire ends up being too blunted to lift it above the clouds.
Our TOH! review roundup of the film is here.