This is an odd film redeemed by strong performances and some stunning scenery. The title refers to a Swiss location featuring a mountain phenomenon, the Maloja Snake. This is low cloud that ‘snakes’ through the valley when the conditions are just so. It is also the title of a play by the fictitious author Wilhelm Melchior. Juliette Binoche plays an actor who won acclaim as the younger of two female characters who clash in the play’s narrative. The film’s narrative involves a mise en abîme so that a plan to re-stage the play twenty years on sees Maria (Binoche) now playing the older character against a rising Hollywood starlet. This obvious reference to All About Eve is then doubled as Maria rehearses the role in the valley of the original setting with her press officer/companion played by Kristen Stewart and then on stage with Chloë Grace Moretz.
The writer/director of this clever, multi-layered film is Olivier Assayas. He’s been here before to some extent with Irma Vep in which Maggie Cheung appears as herself taking on the role of Irma Vep in a re-working of the Louis Feuillade films of 1915. Assayas was playing then with ideas about Truffaut’s La nuite américaine with Jean-Pierre Léaud as the director in both films (Assayas was briefly married to Cheung a few years later.) I’m impressed by Assayas as an intelligent director with strong ideas and a detailed knowledge of cinema. But I also find him rather ‘tricksy’ and his films a little cold. There are plenty of things going on in this film and again it has echoes of Truffaut and in its setting also hints at links to the German genre of the ‘mountain film’ – which could suggest a thriller or a melodrama from the 1920s. What is ‘new’ here is the play around the snobbery and hypocrisy that exists in this new age of social media, paparazzi and celebrity and the movement between Hollywood, European ‘serious cinema’ and the stage. It’s significant that Binoche is a French actress and the fictitious author is (I presume) German but when the play is to be re-staged it will be in London (with a German director). All this means that most of the dialogue is in English. Did I also mention that the film begins on a train the day that Maria is heading to Zurich to receive a prize/tribute on behalf of the author only to receive the news that he has died? As I said, complicated.
The film seems to have split audiences. It is over two hours and the plot layers don’t produce an easily-digested coherent narrative. The best part of the film for me was the sequence in the mountains as Maria and Val (Kristen Stewart) rehearse the play. I thought Stewart was excellent. Binoche too is very good as they ‘read’ the play, each very differently and there is a real tension between them. I don’t know much about Moretz but she seems well cast. I’m not surprised that Stewart won a César for her role. I was less engaged by other parts of the film but I watched all of it with interest. This will be released in the UK through Curzon and it will be interesting to see how it fares at the box office.