A heady psychosexual drama that’s steeped in dense anxieties and rich European glamour (the film was part-funded by Chanel), French filmmaker Olivier Assayas’s latest sees him at the top of his game. Combining the professional paranoia of ‘All About Eve’ with the existential crisis of ‘Persona’, ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’ stars Juliette Binoche as Maria Enders, a fading star who’s agreed to be in a revival of the play that made her famous.
But this time Maria isn’t playing the part of the seductive teen discovering the power of her sexuality; she’s playing the older woman wrapped around her finger. Retreating to the Swiss Alps with her unfailingly honest assistant (Kristen Stewart, a deadpan revelation), Maria begins rehearsals that will force her to grapple with present and past.
It’s a sexy concept that will thrill newcomers to Assayas. But the director’s longtime fans will find its pleasures virtually pornographic. The film may not share the same fetish for reflexivity that made 1996’s ‘Irma Vep’ such a playful hall of mirrors, but ‘Sils Maria’ owns its meta moments. Binoche mines our familiarity with her real-life career in order to set up Maria’s neuroses and Stewart makes several pointed comments about her own celebrity.
An erotic tension develops between the two women. But as the film around them grows more cryptic, it seems as though Maria is lusting after her own shadow. Assayas eventually punctuates the point with a gut punch, blurring the line between fantasy and reality in order to illustrate how great art can make the distinction irrelevant. And this is great art.