Being a famous actress has never been easy: one has to tread ever so gingerly so as not to injure one’s most precious asset, one’s reputation and for those who are not yet quite there, the need to create a scandal from time to time just to stay in the limelight in the risky hope that the fickle public still has one within their treacherous hearts, or in this age of instant satisfaction, more likely, their ephemeral eyes. Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) a famous international actress/star in her 40’s is facing three dilemmas all at the same time: she’s in the middle of a divorce and has to negotiate terms with her husband about the division of family assets; next, she has to decide whether or not to receive a prestigious award in Switzerland on behalf of Wilhem Melchior, whose play the "Maloja Snake" catapulted her into fame some 20 years ago when she played the role of a talented, ambitious and scheming 18-year-old Sigrid who drove her 40-ish boss Helena into suicide as a result of a complex love-hate relationship and third she was strongly advised by Valentine (Kristen Stewart) her young, easy going yet independent-minded personal assistant and confidante to accept an invitation by a famous up and coming theatre director Klaus Diesterweg to play the role of the older protagonist Helena in a revival of "Maloja Snake" and has to decide whether or not to accept that role. That’s the pivot of the film "The Clouds of Sils Maria" by Olivier Asayas ("Paris, je t'aime" (2006), "L'heure d'ètè" ( 2008) and incidentally the ex-husband of Maggie Cheung) who both wrote and directed this cine melodrama.
There are not very many scenarios: Maria and Valentine on the train, each preoccupied with their own private and career related problems whilst on a train through the Swiss Alps, Maria attending a reception for a film promotion in which she met Klaus, Maria attending the prize giving ceremony in Zurich meeting her old flame Henryk Wald (Hann Zischler) whom she adored when she first did the old play at 18 and who later dumped her; her meeting with Rosa Melchoir (Angela Winkler), the wife of the reclusive author in the mountain home of in Sils Maria shortly after his death in the snows of eastern Swiss Alps, just hours before the prize giving ceremony was to begin; a number of rehearsals of the lines of the old play by Maria with Valentine in a small chalet in Sils Maria; Maria meeting the superficial,brash, raw, wild, wilful but alluring Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz) a young upstart who was to play her former role of Sigrid in the coming revival of the old play; Maria finally seeing with her own eyes the famous Maloja Snake of Sils Maria during which Valentine all of a sudden decided to desert her because she felt that she could no longer put up with the constantly gnawing but genuine differences of opinions and irreconcilable perspectives on how “best ” to interpret the conflicts between two characters of Helena and Sigrid and lastly Maria, despite all the pains, traumas and soul searching, reminiscing bravely stepping on to the stage preparing for the opening of revived old play.
Assayas was able to turn up a very thoughtful film on the common fate of an aging actress without boring us, largely I think, through the dynamic clashes of opinion between Maria and Valentine which Binoche and Stewart render very credible by their acting, bringing out quite “naturally” the personal and generational differences in preferences, expectations and values and in the case of Maria, her initially disdainful jealousy and later the very real fears of being overshadowed by Jo-Ann Ellis simply by the cruel logic of aging and the insatiable need of the public for new faces and new idols in the world of entertainment such that at times, when they are rehearsing various lines from the old drama, it sounded as if they were voicing not just the fictive emotions of Helena and Sigrid but in some vague, circuitous and strange way, the sense of mutual exploitation and reliance subsisting in the “real life” relations between Maria and Valentine. After some 20 years, the sexual, generational and personal tensions and conflicts depicted in old play seem not to have aged at all, something which shrouds the unpredictable predictability of the feminine psyche, a bit like those soft, almost velvety but persistent clouds entwining, circling and drifting through those bare and austere rocks and steep valleys of the Sils Maria, as if it were a delicate curse on women, coming when they come and going when they go, as they have been doing, perhaps for millions of years past. I like too, that slow, magnificent movement of Handel's Largo De Xerxes and Sonate No. 2 in D Minor and Pachebel's Canon and Gigue in D Major which seems to fit so well the mood of the action unfolding on the screen, suffusing the passage of time for women with a sense of inexorability.