It’s hard for me to give an objective view of this movie because I am hopelessly in love with Kristen Stewart. (She’s gay?! It can’t be true!) Oh my God, how foxy does she look in those chunky specs?
Despite my personal bias, it is generally acknowledged to be true, not least by the members of the Académie des Arts et Techniques du Cinéma, that Kristen’s acting career is on a sharp upward trajectory. Although released after it, this movie was followed closely by Still Alice (2014) and both demonstrate that here is an actress with so much more depth and scope than was ever likely to be seen in the Twilight Saga.
This is a film primarily about three women. Much of the first half is virtually a two-hander between Juliette Binoche who plays Maria Enders an internationally successful actress and movie star and her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart).Maria is approaching that delicate age that all female stars must confront This is drawn into sharp focus when she accepts (with some trepidation) the part of Helena, a boss who is eventually driven to suicide by her attractive and manipulative young assistant Sigrid. Back in the day, it was the role of Sigrid that kick-started her career.
The tension is ratcheted up another notch by the fact that Valentine is sassy, clever and knowing. Director and writer Olivier Assayas further increases the atmosphere of threat and unease by isolating the two characters in a remote villa overlooking the lake of Sils Maria in the Swiss Alps. Valentine helps Maria to prepare for the role of Helena by reading the part of Sigrid. It is significant that although she has the book in her hand, Valentine hardly looks at as she seems to know the part well. Too well, perhaps. As the pair shift from play script to dialogue and back again, the lines between text and reality begin to blur. What is the relationship between these two? Is it really as relaxed and easy as it first appears? As the movie progresses we sense a fragility, a brittleness between them and cracks start to appear.
About two thirds in, we meet Jo-Ann Ellis a young Hollywood actress and enfant terrible (played by Chloë Grace Moretz) who has been engaged to play Sigrid in the forthcoming production. Maria becomes more and more unsettled by this version of herself thirty years ago, and her relationship with Valentine begins to sour. The eventual parting of the ways is an extraordinary moment in the movie – both unsettling and perplexing.
All three actresses turn in strong and accomplished performances. At no point do any of them become an archetype or a cliché. It’s one of those multi-layered movies that stays with you for days after you’ve watched it. The setting is stunning with the clouds of the Maloja Snake adding an air of mysticism and spirituality to an already febrile atmosphere.