When we first meet Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), she’s riding on a train through the Alps with her ever-present assistant, Valentine (Stewart), by her side. Olivier Assayas’s initially intriguing, ultimately wispy drama doles out the facts in quick succession: Maria is a high-profile stage and film actor in the process of a bitter divorce, and she’s on her way to present an award to the writer who, twenty years earlier, authored the play that first brought her to the world’s attention. (It was a workplace dramedy about a young secretary coldly seducing her female boss to get ahead.) But then Valentine gets a call: The poor honoree has died of a heart attack, the first of several crises that throw Maria off her axis.
Assayas’s film is similarly unmoored, though it takes a while to realize that. He keeps a placid distance from his characters, settling into an easygoing, lightly satirical groove after Maria accepts an offer to do a new production of her deceased mentor’s play. The catch: This time, she’ll be the older woman and troubled Hollywood starlet JoAnn Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz)—whom we primarily see in TMZ-like paparazzi videos and a hilarious movie-within-the-movie superhero parody—will play the conniving assistant.
If you’ve seen Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, you’ll have an inkling of where this is headed. Part of the fun, though, is watching Assayas put his own playful spin on the actorcentric metamovie: It’s actually assistant Valentine who becomes Maria’s quasirival, a stand-in for what this seasoned performer suspects she’ll have to deal with once JoAnn enters her life. Holing up in a remote Swiss cottage—located near a sprawling valley known for its snake-like cloud formations—the duo run lines and verbosely deconstruct the text in ways that blur the divide separating fact from fiction.
It’s a pleasure to watch Binoche and Stewart play off of each other, and Assayas allows their cryptic relationship—at once tender and apprehensive—to slowly develop in intensity and strangeness. The best scene (a drunken nighttime drive on the twisty road from Lake Como) approximates the woozy sensation of the film’s first two-thirds when it feels like anything could happen. Once Maria and Valentine’s interactions are clarified, however, things go terribly off the rails. The narrative resolutions cast a retrospective pall over this slight fable, and rather than basking in a mystery illuminated, we question the logic of everything we’ve seen.
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