Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is a beloved middle-aged actress who just lost a life-long friend, for whom she credits her rise to fame; he cast her in a famous romantic lesbian drama play he wrote and directed 20 years ago when she was only 19. When she is soon after offered the part of the older woman in the play, whom she never identified with during the first run, Maria and her assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), struggle with the implications. She also cautiously believes the play's director, who asserts that the young starlet person playing her first part, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), will take the role as seriously as she did.
In the information age of 20-somethings, admiration of a celebrity no longer stems from the celebrity's work; younger people often admire personal qualities of an actor or actress, which they then project upon any character that celebrity portrays. Of course, admiring personal qualities is nothing new to 40-somethings, but access to the breadth and depth of personality traits and pervasive media around celebrities is new. Seeing the many TMZ videos of Jo-Ann's arrests and her numerous under-the-influence videos, Valentine admires Jo-Ann's tenacity to "be herself" at such a young age in an obsessive culture. Jo-Ann's take on her constant surveillance by the press is more apathetic; she hates them but knows she can't get away. When Maria and Valentine see a sci-fi blockbuster starring Jo-Ann Ellis, Valentine sees a strong female character; Maria sees a silly action star in a film with little substance. Prior to the film, she knows only bits and pieces about Jo-Ann; she doubles over laughing when Valentine suggests that Jo-Ann's sci-fi character is anything more than a blockbuster-friendly, substance-less alien. Yet, afterwards Maria cannot resist looking up more information about Jo-Ann; her photos, her TMZ arrest videos, her under-the-influence interviews. All were available to her before, but until those around her pay more attention to the other celebrity than to her she will not care enough to look them up.
Their differing interpretations mirror the disagreement that develops around Maria's character in the play revival. Maria interprets the older woman as an enduringly sad, devoid of backbone, and struggling businesswoman; nothing like the virile, manipulative vixen she played in her teens. She knows the character only as she relates to the young character she played at 19. Valentine handles the logistical nightmare of Enders' celebrity schedule, but is more importantly looked on as a friend. Valentine sees the older character as much stronger and more vulnerable, countering Maria's interpretation with a renewed vision of strength and questioning what it means to have very different interpretations of the same script.
Kristen Stewart's presence is felt even when off-screen. Her confident strength and independence smolders on the screen, despite her job being to cater to another person's needs 24/7, and when she disappears that commitment feels missing. To be clear, Binoche is a revelation. Her frustration permeates every part of her being; she truly seems to feel everything from her gut to her voice to her limbs and if she is with Valentine she feels no hesitation to allow those feelings to gush from her. She is refreshingly candid in a way that doesn't feel overplayed; she is charming even to those she hates and manages to charm the audience as well, even as she struggles through her feelings of the play.
I was truly astounded at how much I liked this film. Despite the very odd directorial choices with certain scores, jump cuts, and other transitions, it often felt like a stage play. Still, the uncapped emotions, lack of score for most of scenes with dialogue, and ease of the camera's transitions between characters in a scene mimic the way one might watch a stage play. If you're interested in unpacking a bit more about celebrity interpretations, and how they differ among non-celebrities, older celebrities, and younger celebrities, this was one of the quickest two-hour films I've seen in a while.