A review of “Clouds of Sils Maria,” which stars Juliette Binoche as an actress in midlife looking back over the course of her career. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.
“I had a dream that we were already rehearsing and past and present ran together,” says Maria (Juliette Binoche), an actress who’s signed to star in a play in which, 20 years earlier, she first made her name. Now, she’s playing a different role in that production: an older woman, driven mad by the young woman whose role she once played. Her dream reflects the feeling of Olivier Assayas’ free-floating, sometimes disorienting drama “Clouds of Sils Maria,” in which past and present, fact and fiction, and life and art run together.
The story is, for the most part, straightforward: Maria, accompanied by her devoted personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart), travels to Sils Maria in the Swiss Alps to rehearse and star in the play, which also features, in Maria’s former role, a famously volatile young Hollywood actress named Jo-Ann (the furry-voiced Chloë Grace Moretz). She and Valentine hike in the Alps, watch for storms, run her lines and have the kind of conversations that seems to neither begin nor end; in which Maria expresses her anxiety about the direction her career has taken. She’s worked in blockbusters, even playing a villain in an “X-Men” movie (memo to Hollywood: please, please, cast Binoche as a superhero villain, somewhere), but is contemptuous of that life, worried about aging, and wary of Jo-Ann and the storms she may bring.
Assayas, who previously directed Binoche in “Summer Hours,” directs this film as a sort of theatrical labyrinth; it’s hard to tell, and intentionally so, whether the dialogue between Maria and Valentine is their conversation, or lines from the play. A film, too, glides in and out like a cloud between mountains: Arnold Fanck’s eerie 1920s silent footage of the famed weather formation known as the Maloja Snake — a title shared by the play.
Movie Review ★★★
‘Clouds of Sils Maria,’ with Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz, Lars Eidinger. Written and directed by Olivier Assayas. 123 minutes. In English and French, with English subtitles where necessary. Rated R for language and brief graphic nudity. Seven Gables.
Stewart and Binoche, an unlikely duo, find an easy chemistry, with Stewart effortlessly slipping into the role of acolyte and factotum (note how she, on a train ride, takes the backward-facing seat without comment). Binoche, on whom the camera affectionately lingers, makes herself achingly vulnerable. Though the film feels at times a bit cloudy and enigmatic, it’s often fascinating in its juxtapositions. “The text is like an object. It’s going to change perspective depending on where you’re standing,” says a frustrated Valentine to Maria, about the play, mid-film. At its end, we see a close-up of Binoche, the light changing on her pliant face, like the text; it’s a dazzling view.
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