Clouds of Sils Maria is an enigmatic puzzle box of a movie that will have audience members sorting through its pieces long after the credits have rolled. The central character is Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), a middle-aged actress who skyrocketed to fame at 18 playing the character of Sigrid in the play-within-the-movie Maloja Snake. In the play, Sigrid is a careless young woman who seduces her vulnerable female boss, Helena. Now, almost 20 years later, in the wake of the playwright’s death, Maria is asked to join a revival of the play, this time as Helena, with young Hollywood starlet Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), fresh off a superhero movie and a series of tabloid scandals, playing Sigrid.
One would think this is where the movie takes an All About Eve turn, but in fact, Jo-Ann appears infrequently in the film. The real Sigrid-Helena relationship is between Maria and her assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart). While holed up in the deceased playwright’s Swiss mountain home in the eponymous town of Sils Maria, Maria and Valentine run lines and workshop the play. Rather than falling into the roles of Helena and Sigrid in real life, Maria and Valentine are constantly alternating — one is careless and cruel while the other is vulnerable and weak, and a minute later, the distribution of power shifts completely.
Life doesn’t just imitate art in the movie; it imitates our reality, as well. In many ways, Binoche overlaps with Maria (the part was written specifically for Binoche). There’s a scene where Stewart’s Valentine defends both the acting and the exploits of Jo-Ann, and you could take the dialogue of this scene verbatim and apply it to Stewart’s Twilight Saga-fueled rise to fame, her scandalous flameout, and her current renaissance in the world of indie film. One only has to do the quickest of Google searches on French writer/director Olivier Assayas to see his likeness in almost every male character on screen.
This is a movie where reality not only bleeds into fiction, but fiction also bleeds back out into reality, an unnerving and transfixing story that is currently the best film I’ve seen in theaters this year.