Life vs. Art

filmLeadWomen shine in backstage drama ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’

The milieu is theatrical—actors, directors, stage and film. But there’s more than the typical backstage melodrama going on in French filmmaker Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria. It’s very much a movie of ideas, rather than action, in which a highly lauded and beloved French actress—played by the highly lauded and beloved Juliette Binoche—must confront thorny issues of aging, sexuality and personal relationships when she’s asked to return to the stage in a revival of the same play that made her a star 20 years earlier. Except this time, instead of playing the ingénue, she’ll be playing a conflicted and defeated older woman.

It’s an astute premise for drama, made more intriguing in that Assayas creates not one, but three strong female roles. Besides the star played by Binoche, we get Kristen Stewart, as her harried but efficient young personal assistant, and Chloe Grace Moretz as the even younger American movie starlet cast in the ingénue role in the play opposite the star. Yes, there’s a lot of talk in the film (although, since two of the main characters are Yanks, most of the dialogue is in English), but the talk is often rich and thoughtful.

Maria Enders (Binoche), celebrated actress of stage and screen, is on a train in the Alps en route to an international tribute to the Swiss dramatist who launched her career 20 years ago by casting her in his play The Maloja Snake. (The title refers to a weather phenomenon by which morning fog appears to wind through a certain valley of the Alps like a snake.) As she writes her speech, her assistant, Val (Stewart), intercepts incoming calls, emails and texts, arranges transport, and keeps her on schedule.

Maria’s memories are stirred by running into a German actor she dislikes at the tribute, and reuniting with the dramatist’s widow (the great Angela Winkler, fondly remembered as the star of The Lost Honor Of Katharina Blum), who loans Maria her secluded house in the Alps. She’s also approached by a director who wants to restage The Maloja Snake in London. The play concerns an executive businesswoman beguiled, seduced and manipulated by a younger woman rising in the ranks. But this time, instead of the disruptive younger woman, Maria is cast as the executive, while the younger role goes to a 19-year-old Hollywood starlet, JoAnn (Moretz), with a scandalous reputation.

The stage is set, literally and metaphorically, for reflections on reckless youth, the inevitability of aging, and the change of perspective between the two, as well as facing and letting go of the past. But the interaction is mostly between Maria and Val, rattling around their borrowed house, hiking through the mountains, and getting raucously sauced together at the bar in town. They also rehearse the play together (Val reading the ingénue role, of course), a clever device by which Assayas explores not only the volatile relationship in the play within the film, but also the evolving real-life dynamic between Maria and Val—often leaving it to the viewer to distinguish between dialogue written in the play and their own impromptu conversations.

There’s a sly undercurrent to Assayas’ portrait of modern techno-driven arts. (Maria doesn’t want to do “another X-Men;” she and Val debate the merits of JoAnn’s performance in a cold, slick sci-fi epic, a dubious snippet of which we see.) But while the idea of moving on and not getting stuck in the past is a recurring theme, Assayas’ decision not to address certain dangling plot points (unknown papers burned in a grate; one character’s disappearance) feels a bit perverse.

Still, this is the kind of femme-driven story it rarely even occurs to anybody in Hollywood to make, and it’s a treat to see all three actresses rise to the challenge of the material. Binoche and Stewart both won César awards (the French Oscar) in the Actress and Supporting Actress categories for their edgy dynamic here; Stewart is, in fact, the first American actress to ever win one. An ensemble piece in every sense, Clouds of Sils Maria explores the collaborative art of making drama.


***(out of four)

With Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloe Grace Moretz. Written and directed by Olivier Assayas. A Sundance Selects release. Rated R. 124 minutes.

PHOTO: Juliette Binoche stars in ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’ along with Kristen Stewart and Chloe Grace Moretz.

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