With Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloe Grace Moretz.
Maria (Binoche), an aging actress, must adjust to her diminishing role in a play in which 20 years earlier she had played the ingenue to the older woman, and now plays the older woman. She is losing her status in three ways: as a viable leading actress because of age, as a wife, and as someone who can navigate modern life. JoAnn (Moretz), the actress playing the ingenue, is laden with the trappings of celebrity culture, scandal, paparazzi.
The movie opens on a train where Maria and her assistant, Valentine (Stewart) are traveling through the Alps. Valentine is fielding calls about Maria’s potential roles and from a divorce lawyer, because Maria must face her real life divorce. As they travel through the mountains, Assayas belabors the dehumanizing demands resulting from nonstop communication and distractions of technology. At one point Maria says, “I hate the Internet.” But it is the only way for her to learn about her new costar.
As Valentine helps Maria learn her part by feeding her Jo-Ann’s lines, the scenario becomes something of a play within a play, that in turn becomes a movie within a play within a play. This meta nature to the movie can be dizzying until the real actress, Jo-Ann shows up, and then it is clear how displaced Maria really is, how her generation is being replaced by a younger one, just as she did in her time when she played the young ingenue replacing an older actress who eventually kills herself. Other displacements occur when Valentine disappears mysteriously or simply without explanation, and another assistant is quickly at the side of the needy actress. Suicide occurs early in the movie when the playwright who they are traveling to the Alps to celebrate, is discovered dead on his beloved mountain which inspires the whole movie. There are enough ideas in this movie for five movies. Assayas has a nimble mind, and cares about the right things, but I am not sure he succeeds completely in his screenplay. There are strong performances by all the women, especially Kristen Stewart and Juliette Binoche.
Binoche as she has aged has retained her beauty. What good it does her is the question. Just because older women remain beautiful and become even stronger actresses does not mean that there will be parts for them that they want. Assayas speaks directly to this dilemma. I am always grateful when women have substantial roles in movies, and so I was glad to see this film. Assayas’ other movie which I liked even more, Summer Hours, also combines the ideas of aging gracefully, casting off what belongs to us, and accepting our mortality.
Sils Maria, a stunning spot in Switzerland, is the real star of the movie. Its ethereal and eternal beauty cannot be diminished.