dir. Olivier Assayas.
Assay’s latest, his fifteenth feature, would appear on the surface to be in the vein of the well shot, comfortable and assured work he has produced since leaving behind the “b-movie trash” of the new french extremes of “Boarding Gate” and “Demonlover” with his 2009 tale of middle class Parisians dealing with their mother’s death. Continuing with “Carlos” and “Apres Mai” the former Cahiers du Cinema critic appeared to be taking a semi-nostalgic view of French life and recent history – specifically the decade that followed the tumult of 1968 and the revolution that almost happened in the summer of that year. The notion of nostalgia is taken up in this film, embodied in the form of iconic actor Maria Enders, played by iconic actor Juliette Binoche, who is asked to return to “Maloja Snake”, the play that launched her career. Maria was on her way to Zurich to collect an award on behalf of the play’s author Melchior, when she learns that he has died suddenly – suicide as his widow confides. While dealing with this shock, she is approached by a popular young theatre director who wants to put on the play once more.
The play concerns the stormy love affair between 18 year old Sigrid and middle-aged Helena, who is eventually driven to suicide. Previously Maria played Sigrid, only this time she would play the older woman to the ingenue that she portrayed in her youth. Sigrid, then, would be played by a young American actress (played by Chloë Grace Moritz) who seems to be a stand in for a Lindsay Lohan-esque character, a shimmering spiral of drink and parties and celebrity website gossip. Alongside Binoche’s Maria throughout the film is her PA Valentine, played by Kristen Stewart of Twilight fame. Valentine is the first person we see on screen, juggling Maria’s life on two mobiles while the camera juggles with the train bouncing along the tracks. Maria is never away from Valentine (barring one brief scene), and it is between these two that the majority of the film’s scenes take place. Persuaded to take up the role of Helena, Maria is offered the use of Melchior’s villa in the eponymous region of Sils Maria in the Swiss Alps by his widow, to prepare.
Here the drama engages in the central conceit of duality and the meta-narrative of a play within a play (or in this case, film). Valentine reads for Sigrid as Maria rehearses her part as Helena – Binoche trimming her hair to a lesbian-chic close crop for the part. The dynamism and chemistry in these scenes are riveting, not just from the (melo-)drama of the play’s dialogue, but the clear on screen chemistry between the two. Perhaps as might be expected from such a scenario, the question of wether the lines are coming from, and referring to, the characters they are playing in the play or in the film becomes an intriguing riddle. Further, we as an audience cannot escape the on screen spectacle of arguably the pre-eminent actress of her time turned 50, opposite a young star recognisable to all of her generation. That these two spar over dialogue that demonstrates the generational difference between both characters and actors brings out a tension that sparkles more than any tweenage vampire could. There are some fantastic moments, particularly after they go to see the latest (3D) sci-fi superhero spectacular starring the 18 year old star that will take the role of Sigrid this time. Over beers afterwards, Stewart’s Valentine tries to argue that there is depth in the, mainly ludicrous, spandex clad tale of evil enemies and space-spanning love. Valentine is genuine and heartfelt, while Maria can only erupt into fits of laughter and spits of beer.
It is not without cause that I mentioned “Persona” earlier, as Bergman’s film of complex personal psychology bears some relation to this. In both an actor’s sense of self and identity is questioned, a period of isolation accompanied only by another woman who balances between servitude and adoration. In Persona, the dissolution of one personality into the other becomes the subject of the psychological crisis; in Assayas’s film it is Maria’s self that wavers around the characters of Sigrid, her own past, and Helena.
MAJOR SPOILER: And one instance toward the end of the film throws into question all that we have seen before. While on one of their hikes through the Alps that their fiery relationship and repartee seems to turn into a genuine argument. They are looking for the actual Maloja Snake – a weather phenomenon where a river of cloud, like a snake, pours down a valley into the lake; like Rohmer’s “Rayon Vert” this hard to see phenomena takes on a symbolic role, a “you have to believe” concept that, Valentine argues, the young and angry Maria, like the young snd angry Sigrid, would see. And then, after crossing a hill, Maria thinks she sees it, or is it mist, or maybe – and then she turns and Val is gone. Maria screams for her, wide shots show she could not have ran away. The camera lifts to the horizon, Pachabel’s Canon resumes as the Maloja Snake drifts with an eldritch majesty, unaffected and unwitnessed. We fade to Epilogue, London, a few weeks later. Maria is in another hotel room, skyping her agent, seemingly able to handle her professional and personal life. Valentine is never mentioned again, Maria has a PA (with the same boyish short haircut Maria adopted for her role) but their relationship doesn’t have the spark that excited the air with Val. Obviously, the question remains: did Val exist? Is she as much a fiction as Helena and Sigrid? The on-screen manifestation of 20 year old Maria, channeling Sigrid.
En route to a dinner meeting with the director he tells her that a friend of Jo-Ann had made a suicide attempt and was in the hospital. The director is devastated as is Jo-Ann, he relates.. Maria makes one of her frequent turns to Google (something Valentine always told her to do when short of knowledge about current pop culture) and can already find a paparazzi photo of the young woman being taken into hospital. Over their dinner the director Klaus and Maria discuss the play and the writer as to what he may mean, and how to interpret their new performance. Jo-Ann and Kris and Klaus engage in a feverish drama of phone calls, texts and fear of the paparazzi that Maria can only watch, bemused and faintly horrified.
By movie’s end Maria is reading lines in a hotel room with her (new?) PA. She appears willing to take a role in just the sort of effects-laden show that she laughed at with Val. In final dress rehearsal, Maria offers a suggestion to Jo-Ann about how to play Sigrid, based on how she played her. Jo-Ann replies that Helena is washed up, a wreck – “the character, not you”; Jo-Ann doesn’t take her advice and this stuns Maria somewhat – she says she is “lost in old habits; I guess I’ll just have to break them”. In her dressing room she meets the director of the blockbuster she is considering. They discuss the character’s age, her modernity, with Maria suggesting a younger, more modern, actress – Jo-Ann but, to her surprise, he dismisses her and the era they both inhabit as one of Jo-Ann Ellis and viral internet scandals. He says he wants someone outside of time, a concept Maria says is “too abstract”. And yet as the camera cranes through the glass offices set on opening night we rest on a mid-shot of Maria, her gaze distant and her visage of dignity in resignation – or is it acceptance? An amalgamation of youth and age, of Sigrid and Helena.