Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart excel in this beautiful, meta-textual two-hander.
The Maloja Snake is a natural phenomenon which occurs high-up in the Swiss Alps. A serpent-like cloud formation dramatically descends on a picturesque valley at daybreak and then proceeds to slither benignly across a great lake. As super-sized landscape metaphors go, it's an occurrence which most directors might ride rough-shod into the ground for all its symbolic juice.
Not so Olivier Assayas, whose ultra-melancholic new work keeps this beast tethered down in the background, its meaning less to with any sudden encroachment of evil, more that the trail of drifting clouds stand in as a meteorological barometer for time's relentless charge.
Operating as a breezy echo-call back to Assayas' 1996 film Irma Vep, the film is about the process of making movies from the perspective of actors, the emotional toil of immersing the mind in a role as well and also the logistical realities of creating art in the age of TMZ and cat lols. Much like his previous film, Something In The Air (about youth and post-'68 political malaise) this one also rejects a conventional structure to offer a meandering cluster of "scenes" which culminate in a single character reaching a transcendent juncture of hushed grace.
At the centre of the film is Juliette Binoche's moody, mildly shambling grande dame actress Maria Enders who leapt to fame at the age of 18 when she snagged the lead in a famous play (also named Maloja Snake), a cross-generational two-hander of coiled same-sex eroticism which plays a little like a stagebound The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Sils Maria chronicles the period in her life in which she has grudgingly accepted to revisit the play, only this time playing the older spurned lover instead of the coquettish ingenue.
To help her through this metaphysically trying time is assistant, Valentine, here played by Kristen Stewart, who delivers a performance of immense poise and texture, retaining good humour in the face of a full-time position which involves being locked in the professional mindset of another woman. Her character, replete with forearm tattoos, vintage band t-shirts and thick black-framed glasses, is one who initially seems like a satirical archetype of the carefree PR dolly, yet Stewart imparts an air of pensive solemnity, seldom exploding into grand, try-hard theatrics.
Assayas uses the women as a conduit through which to discuss the paradoxes of playing roles which (emotionally) can be close to home, and their rapport is complex, lived-in and also dashed with gentle undertow of romantic allure. The director is also using these women as a kind of juxtaposition of generations; literally in their cultural concerns, tastes and human connections, but also through their styles of acting, with Binoche doing hearty, expressive and impassioned (that laugh!) and Stewart more clipped, studied and unwilling to so open up to her touchy-feely employer. Alongside a sub-plot involving the tumultuous life of a hot young Hollywood starlet and paparazzi darling (Chloë Grace Moretz), Assayas is also making a subtle link to Stewart's off-screen persona as well as the Twilight roles which launched her into the stratosphere.
Though Sils Maria could be read as possessing the perfume of sly satire, its key strength is in fact its utter sincerity for both the lives and worlds it depicts. Assayas values so-called trash cinema as much as he values "classic" theatre, and is enthused by the human ability to find beauty in all cultural forms, irregular, vapid, mis-shapen and antiquated though they may be. It's a doleful, multi-layered expression of time-passing and culture changing to fit the world in which exists. Its subtly and tenderness are never forced and its performances usher in messy, confusing humanity by the hundredweight.