Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart act each other off the screen in Clouds of Sils Maria

In search of the Maloja Snake. © Carole Bethuel

What is truth? In some senses the question that Pontius Pilate asks of Jesus is a profound one. In other ways, however, the question is poorly formulated. For, if the truth is that there is no fixed truth, but that there are only ever mutating, permeable truths, then to ask what truth “is” is to try to affix a fixity to a concept that has no fixity at all.

Although Olivier Assayas does not strictly frame Clouds of Sils Maria within ideas borrowed from Christian mythology (although it has two Marias, a Valentine, a reputedly wise man called Melchior, and a sacrifice of sorts), his new film seems to ask a similar question and, indeed, to suggest that the answer to the question is as ungraspable and transient as a cloud.

The film tells the story of Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), an actress on her way to Zurich to present a lifetime achievement award to the man who provided her with her first role, theatre and film director Wilhelm Melchior (whom we do not see). Melchior seems something like an amalgam of Ingmar Bergman – a giant of both film and theatre who lives an isolated life – and Jean-Luc Godard (another hermit who lives in Switzerland, and who, while not having worked in theatre, did give Juliette Binoche her first major film role).

Assayas wrote the role specifically for Binoche. © Carole Bethuel.

However, en route to Zurich – the film’s opening – Maria’s assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) receives a phone call: Melchior is dead. The award ceremony goes ahead, with Maria meeting ambitious theatre director Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), who wants to restage Maloja Snake, the Melchior play in which Maria launched her trajectory to stardom. But, while Maria then played the young and manipulative Sigrid, Diesterweg now wants her to play the older Helena. The play follows Sigrid as she toys with Helena like a cat with a sparrow – Helena is eventually driven to suicide through her obsession for the younger girl.

Maria accepts the role and after the ceremony goes to Sils Maria, the secluded mountain village where Melchior’s widow Rosa (Angela Winkler) resides. Rosa cannot bear to be surrounded by memories of Melchior, and so leaves the house to Maria, who decides to stay and rehearse for the part of Helena with Valentine.

What ensues is a nuanced study of the relationship between a younger and older woman as Maria and Valentine act out the roles of Helena and Sigrid with such intensity that we, and the women, begin to find it hard to separate their real selves from the fictional personae that they adopt. What, indeed, is truth?

Valentine is not to play Sigrid (she is not an actress). That part goes to Hollywood brat Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), who is all over the internet owing to too-candid press conference responses and shoe-chucking meltdowns in front of smartphone gawkers. Maria is in denial about her fascination for the seeming tastelessly fame-hungry Jo-Ann, while Valentine assures Maria of Jo-Ann’s brilliance (she’s Valentine’s favourite actress… except for Maria, of course).

Jo-Ann comes to Switzerland to meet Maria. Her new boyfriend, novelist Christopher Giles (Johnny Flynn), tags along. Maria seems upbeat, at least before she and Valentine go hiking around the hills of Sils Maria in search of a glimpse of the mythical “Maloja Snake”, an undulating cloud formation that passes under the peaks of the mountains – and after which the play-within-the-film is of course named. At one point, we also see beautiful archive footage of the clouds, shot in 1924 by Arnold Fanck.

What ensues is best left for the reader to experience at the cinema. Assayas depicts a turn of events that is among the most surprising on screen in recent memory – although I might take this moment to praise the astounding ending of Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, also presently on cinema screens (and itself a contender with Sils Maria, Girlhood and the forthcoming Timbuktu as the best film of 2015 so far).

Clouds of Sils Maria is a delicate but profound consideration of the all-pervasive nature of image culture via technology in the contemporary world – and the pressure that this puts on women especially to conform to the expectations of that culture. It is also a treatise on a generation that perhaps has left no choice to their youngers but invisibility or rebellious obnoxiousness.

Kristen Stewart is gob-smacking. © Carole Bethuel

Maria at one point poses in a photo shoot. She is a seasoned pro. But the moment brings to mind the way in which the world wants to seem to find and enforce fixity (a sense of “is”) in human beings, especially women, who are otherwise changing from moment to moment, from day to day. It highlights the pressure a world places on women when it asks them to stop time.

Maybe humans cannot see change, in that it takes the film’s duration for Maria to realise that she is perhaps no longer Sigrid. But maybe cinema, unlike photography, can show change – as suggested by the fact that Maria does not see the Maloja Snake for itself, but only in Fanck’s wonderful archive images.

This film is an intelligent and expertly crafted gem. It keeps its viewers endlessly asking the truth of what they are seeing – of course, it makes no sense to make a film that asks after truth if that film offers up a concrete answer. You finish the film wanting more.

Binoche is excellent as she channels the self-absorption that has characterised various of her recent roles (especially Certified Copy and 1,000 Times Good Night). But the real, absolute hands-down gob-smacking aspect of the film is Kristen Stewart. Clouds of Sils Maria raises Stewart to the echelons of the best actresses out there.

Metaphorically speaking, Stewart acts Binoche off the screen – such that the screen literally cannot contain the two of them in the end. How this comes about, however, must like the Maloja Snake be seen for itself (and not explained by me) if one is to have any sense of how deftly, almost ungraspably profound Clouds of Sils Maria actually is.