Maria Enders (Binoche) is an internationally famous movie and stage star plagued by the specter of white dwarf-dom, who received her big break starring as the young Sigrid in the play Maloja Snake by Wilhelm Melchior. The play concerns a heartless young girl ("Sigrid") who seduces a vulnerable older woman ("Helena") and eventually drives her to suicide. Following the suicide of Melchior, Maria joins a revival of Maloja Snake, this time playing the role of the older Helena, and cast as Sigrid is the Lindsay-Lohan-esque tabloid-fodder extraordinaire Jo-Ann Ellis (Moretz).
Maria retreats to Sils Maria, Melchoir's estate in the Swiss Alps to memorize her lines. In tow is her long-suffering and loyal-to-a-fault personal assistant, Valentine (Stewart). And while there, the real world begins to melt into the world of the script.
The film was released to wide acclaim, winning a Louis Delluc Prize for Best Film and a César Award (the French equivalent to the Oscar) for Best Supporting Actress for Kristen Stewart, making her the second American to win one.
This film provides examples of:
- Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: When Maria and Jo-Ann first meet, Maria likes her (though Valentine points out that this might be because Jo-Ann did nothing but compliment her.) Later on, though, Jo-Ann blows off a suggestion of Maria's for the play in a particularly cruel way.
- Bittersweet Ending: Valentine simply vanishes and is forgotten about, if she ever really existed in the first place, but it's suggested that Maria has at last accepted what Valentine's being trying to tell her all along: that she herself has got older and can't cling onto her youth anymore. The final shot of the film has her sitting onstage, smoking, waiting for the play to start, looking calm and at peace.
- Born in the Wrong Century: Maria meets with a young director hoping to cast her in his first film. She suggests that Jo-Ann might be better for the part, but he rejects that outright. He seems to consider Jo-Ann, in an uncomplimentary way, as emblematic of the current era, and admits he wishes he were around in a different time.
- Driven to Suicide: A repeated theme. Wilhelm commits suicide (though his wife tells no one but Maria) for reasons unknown. Within Maloja Snake, Helena is apparently driven to suicide by Sigrid abandoning her. Jo-Ann's boyfriend's wife attempts suicide, presumably due to his having an affair.
- The Generation Gap: Between Maria and Valentine/Jo-Ann. Mined for quiet comedy in a scene where Valentine tries to explain to a befuddled Maria on why shes a fan of Jo-Ann.
- Homoerotic Subtext: Theres quite a bit of this between Maria and Valentine, such as Maria peeking at Valentine sleeping in her underwear, and in the scenes when they rehearse Maloja Snake together.
- Important Haircut: Maria has one at some point between Part One and Part Two, as if to accept that shes no longer as young and glamorous as she used to be.
- Jerkass Has a Point: Maria asks Jo-Ann to play a moment in the play the way she played it herself, when she was young, to emphasise Helena's distress. Jo-Ann refuses, on the grounds that everyone gets that Helena is distressed and it's time to move on. This is the moment when Maria finally realises the dynamic of the play she's in: she concedes that Jo-Ann's right, and she herself is "lost in my memories".Maria: You leave without looking at me, as if I didnt exist, the audience follows you out, but instantly forgets about her, soJo-Ann: [smiling] So...so what? No one really gives a fuck about Helena at that point, do you think? Im sorry, but I mean its pretty clear to me this poor womans all washed up. [Beat] I mean your character, right, not you.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Jo-Ann Ellis is basically Kristin Stewart back when she was just off the Twilight movies.
- One Dialogue, Two Conversations: As Valentine and Maria rehearse their way through the script of Maloja Snake, it progressively gets more difficult to tell whether they are talking about their real-life relationship or simply reciting lines.
- One conversation has what appears to be Maria completely losing her temper at Valentine, flipping a table and storming out, after a beat, the camera pans down to the promptbook and Valentine recites the stage directions describing Maria's outburst.
- Only One Name: Valentine is just Valentine.
- Psycho Lesbian: In the Show Within a Show, Sigrid is a young sociopath who seduces and destroys her older female boss, eventually driving her to suicide.
- Pimped-Out Dress: The film was partially funded by Chanel, thus there are quite a lot of gowns and jewelry on display.
- Scenery Porn: The film was shot on location in the titular Swiss-Alpine village of Sils Maria, and it shows. Also the Clouds themselves.
- Sci Fi Ghetto:In-universe. While Jo-Ann's previous film isn't particularly good, Maria freely admits that her disdain for it springs from nose-in-the-air snobbery, and from contempt for science fiction as a genre that she refuses to take seriously.
- Screw This, I'm Out of Here!: After Maria grumbles and complains about Valentine's attempt to show her the Maloja Snake, Valentine finally decides she's had enough and disappears.
- Skinny Dipping: In one scene, Maria and Valentine hike to the edge of a lake and then strip off and have a swim, although only Maria strips off completely. This was partly because it was thought that Valentine, being a younger American, would be more inhibited than the European Maria about taking her clothes off, but it also demonstrates how Maria is coming to terms with her older body.
- Star-Making Role: In-universe, the role of Sigrid is what launched Maria's successful career. Jo-Ann hopes this role in the revival will bring her some credibility.
- Stealth Hi/Bye: All done in one shot. Maria and Valentine are seen descending a slope into a shallow ravine, and they disappear from sight behind the ridge, which is closer to the camera. A moment later, Maria comes up the near side of the ravine, but Valentine is never seen again, and it's never explained where she went.
- Stylistic Suck: Jo-Anns previous film, an incredibly campy mess of YA sci-fi and superhero cliches. Maria, the highbrow veteran actress, is utterly dumbfounded watching it, even taking off her 3D glasses at one point to make sure that what she's watching is real, and bursts out laughing when Valentine tries to defend it.
- Suspiciously Apropos Script: The play Maloja Snake also exactly mirrors the real life situation each of the characters find themselves in. At one point, a scene begins with Maria and Valentine apparently having a tense argument about their own work arrangements, and only a few moments in does it become clear that they are in fact rehearsing a scene from the play.
- Tabloid Melodrama: Jo-Ann simply cannot keep her tempestuous life out of the yellow press. Although it turns out she has a lot more depth than she's letting on. Which becomes a sort of sly nod at the Twilight-era Kristen Stewart.
- Take That!: Maria has a lot to say about superhero and sci-fi movies, none of it particularly flattering, and the snippet that we see of Jo-Ann's movie is very, very cheesy. On the other hand, the film isn't much kinder to Maria's filmography, which includes the melodrama Meloja Snake and a political thriller with the terrible title Beetle on Its Back.
- Ungrateful Bastard: Valentine eventually realizes that no matter how faithfully she serves Maria, Maria will always look down on her, and decides to leave her.
- The Unsolved Mystery: What happens to Valentine at the end. She simply vanishes as she and Maria hike through the Alps, and it is left ambiguous if she committed suicide or she just decided at that point to walk away from her ungrateful boss. This becomes a callback to the fates of Helena and Melchior, both of whom walked off into the mountains never to be seen again.
- The Vamp: In-universe for Maloja Snake, in which Sigrid deliberately seduces Helena for all she had and then callously leaves her with nothing.
- "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Valentine, and her realization that she's never going to get any appreciation from Maria drives the last third of her character arc.
- White-Dwarf Starlet: Contemplated endlessly, Maria is quite aware that, being an actress of a certain age, there is nowhere else for her to go except down. And just to drive the point home, her star-making role was taken from her and given to a younger actress.