Earlier this week, Inside Amy Schumer premiered its third season with an episode called “Last Fuckable Day.” As the titular sketch of the episode, “Last Fuckable Day” skewered Hollywood’s reaction to actresses as they age, particularly when compared to their male counterparts.
While not quite that extreme in its subject matter, Clouds of Sils Maria similarly tackles issues of aging as an actress. For Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), internal questions of her relevance as a movie star and a decreased level of interest in what constitutes acting collide as she returns to the play that launched her career, only in the role of the older woman.
Already shaken by her mentor’s sudden death as the film opens, Maria retreats to a chalet in the Swiss Alps with her personal assistant, Val (Kristen Stewart) to prepare for a new staging of Maloja Snake, the aforementioned play that launched her career and the first collaboration with her deceased mentor. In the current take on the play, Maria will play the middle-aged executive who is seduced and manipulated by her assistant. Now playing her former role of the assistant is Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), an actress whose talent is frequently overshadowed by her tabloid-worthy antics. Surprisingly, the relationship between Maria and Jo-Ann doesn’t hit until the film’s final half hour, with Jo-Ann’s prior appearances being through video footage. Instead, the relationship between Maria and Val dominates the film, with Val’s detached approach to life finding her conflicted about her relationship with Maria, which verges on total dependency.
The parallels between Maloja Snake and Maria’s relationship with Val provides Clouds of Sils Maria with its substance, and the degree to which those parallels are drawn elevate the film. The tension between Maria and Val is so strong that it’s impossible to tell whether their conversations in the Swiss Alps are real, or if they’re just running lines from Maloja Snake. Binoche brings her largely accepted talent to the role of Maria, but the surprise of the film is seeing Stewart meet her constantly in a far less showy role. When Binoche and Stewart get going, they dominate the screen, even in the expanse of the Swiss Alps.