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Late in this remarkable new film from writer-director Olivier Assayas, a personal assistant played by Kristen Stewart is butting heads with her boss — a mercurial actress portrayed by Juliette Binoche — over their respective interpretations of a play. “The text is like an object,” the exasperated Stewart explains. “It’s gonna change perspective based on where you’re standing.”
The same can be said for “Clouds of Sils Maria” itself, a slippery, enigmatic and altogether mesmerizing movie about the passage of time, and the way our ideas about art evolve according to our life experiences. It’s a movie you’ll find yourself turning over in your mind for quite some time after the closing credits roll, marinating in the heady swirl of ideas and defiantly unresolved resolutions.
Binoche plays Maria Enders, a glamorous international superstar not all that unlike Juliette Binoche herself, struggling with the dearth of roles for actresses over forty and slightly bitter after an unrewarding recent paycheck gig as a villain in an “X-Men” sequel. (It’s worth noting that Binoche appeared in last summer’s already forgotten “Godzilla” remake to strikingly little effect.) Maria’s high-culture mileu of profound plays and arts foundation galas is presented by Assayas with a greying, almost mausoleum quality. It’s a way of life on the way out.
Stewart’s Val is Maria’s girl Friday, a constant companion handling all the day-to-day affairs, travel arrangements and stuff that requires smartphones. She’s a bright kid, plugged-in and hyper-aware of a modern world that her employer can afford to tune out. Part nursemaid, part Jiminy Cricket, Val expertly handles Maria’s temperamental mood swings and has a skillful way of subtly calling B.S. on her boss every once in a while.
This relationship is sorely tested when, after many protestations, Maria agrees to take part in a hotshot director’s London revival of “Maloja Snake,” the (made-up) play that rocketed her to stardom back at the age of eighteen. It’s the story of a middle-aged woman ruined by her love affair with a much younger female office assistant. Once upon a time Maria was the ingénue, now getting into the headspace of the older character is something easier said than done.
For maximum marketing potential, Maria’s signature role is to be played by JoAnn Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), a tabloid tragedy of squandered potential in the Lindsay Lohan mold, more famous for DUI’s and TMZ videos than her classical training.
This sounds like the setup for “All About Eve,” but the bulk of “Clouds of Sils Maria” is a gorgeously acted Bergman-esque two-hander — with Maria and Val holed up in a Swiss Alps village from which the movie takes its title, running lines to prepare for the production and fraying each other’s nerves. Assayas constructs the film as a hall of mirrors, transitioning at times imperceptibly from the play’s dialogue to the characters’ increasingly pointed personal conversations.
"You can't be as accomplished as you are and as well-rounded as an actress and still expect to hold on to the privileges of youth," insists Val. But Maria, who has been coddled and babied for decades (lately by Val herself) mulishly refuses to consider “Maloja Snake” from any point of view besides her original teenaged interpretation. To do so would be admitting that time has passed and that the world has moved on. She rages against what she perceives as the dying of the light, gradually prodded by Val into accepting that the benefits of age are quite different from, but perhaps no less desirable than those privileges of youth to which she so desperately clings.
Binoche undergoes an extraordinary physical transformation over the course of the picture, beginning as a voluptuous basketcase, unraveling into a dowdy, neurotic mess, only to emerge sleekly elegant and reserved. Wisdom looks good on her.
Stewart is even better. This excellent young actress has received more than her fair share of mockery for sullen turns in those wretched “Twilight” movies, with little attention paid to sterling work in smaller films like “Adventureland” or “The Runaways.” She has a grounded, unguarded directness as a performer that’s too often misinterpreted as a lack of affect. You never catch Kristen Stewart “acting,” which makes her such a great foil for showier performances, as when she played opposite Julianne Moore in “Still Alice” last year, and especially against Binoche in “Clouds of Sils Maria” — for which Stewart just won the César (France’s equivalent of an Oscar), becoming the first American ever to do so.
As the actual Maloja Snake — a meteorological phenomenon for which this fictional play was named — moves in over the mountains, Assayas makes a leap into metaphor with an initially perplexing story choice that in retrospect feels one hundred percent correct. His haunting final image can be interpreted as either a triumph or surrender; an actress takes her place on a stage. That place changes perspective based on where you’re standing.
Over the past 16 years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at splicedpersonality.com