To be honest, I watched this movie some time ago, it’s just that writing about it in any meaningful way was a little daunting.
It’s about an actress, Maria (the fabulous Juliette Binoche), who has had a lauded career after being launched in the theatre playing Sigrid, a sizzling ingénue. Now, years later, the playwright and her mentor has died, and there’s interest in re-staging the play, and Maria is approached to star. The catch? This time she’d of course be playing the role of the older woman, Helena, in a complicated May-December lesbian office unrequited romance (whoa, that’s a mouthful).
Should Maria take the role? Initially she declines. She finds the older character to be a bit pathetic, too much of a doormat. But the director is tenacious and Maria is not exactly afraid of a challenging role, so she accepts. She retreats to a remote chalet with her personal assistant (Kristen Stewart) and they begin rehearsing the play, only in the rehearsing, Maria again grapples with her distaste for the weakness of the character, and must face her own feelings about aging.
Chloe Grace Moretz floats in as the scandal-prone Hollywood It Girl who is to play the younger woman. She flatters Maria with fandom but ultimately plays the role much differently than Maria did, which further drives Maria to feel obsolete, and to wonder if this older character is perhaps an uncomfortable reflection of herself.
I didn’t find the story-telling in this movie to be quite satisfactory, but the performances were top-notch. There’s an intense, almost sexual chemistry between Binoche and Stewart that makes their rehearsals a rare treat to watch. Not often are two such strong female characters allowed to shine on the screen together with such naked feeling.
Binoche loved the idea of this movie so much that she approached director Olivier Assayas with it and convinced him to write the script as well. In a funny meta twist, Assayas co-wrote the script of Rendez-Vous, which was the film that helped make Binoche a star. Binoche claims she strove for such authenticity that she accepted a brief role in Godzilla just so she could believably deliver a line about acting in blockbusters.
Chanel (the fashion house) stepped in not only with wardrobe but with financing so that Assayas could film in 35mm. The movie does in fact look totally gorgeous, not least because it’s filmed on location in Sils Maria, Switzerland. And Binoche reins over this film with stately grace, simmering jealousy, raging insecurity – every bit of it layered and nuanced to perfection. Maria is dealing with a changing industry and a role that requires alarming introspection, but what Binoche and company accomplish is to make us ask ourselves – are we Sigrids, or are we Helenas?