‘Clouds of Sils Maria’ explores porous borders between life and art

Mike D’Angelo

Three and a half stars

Cloud of Sils Maria Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz. Directed by Olivier Assayas. Rated R. Opens Friday.

Set mostly in the Swiss Alps—thereby creating a beauty contest between the actors and the scenery—Clouds of Sils Maria stars Juliette Binoche as Maria Enders, a movie star who made her reputation many years earlier as the scheming ingenue in a play called Maloja Snake. Now middle-aged, she’s being courted to appear in a revival of the play … but as the older woman her original character seduced, opposite Hollywood’s new flavor of the month, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz). Maria’s anxiety about having become old enough to switch roles is refracted through numerous conversations and arguments with her personal assistant, Val (Kristen Stewart), with whom she also frequently runs her lines.

This Ingmar Bergman-esque scenario, written and directed by the French filmmaker Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours), explores the porous borders between life and art; often, it’s hard to tell whether Maria and Val are speaking as themselves or rehearsing Maloja Snake. That Binoche excels as a woman whose strength masks a deep undercurrent of insecurity is no surprise—she’s good in everything. The revelation here is Stewart, who casually discards the baggage dumped on her by the Twilight franchise. Beautifully underplaying every scene while suggesting a subtle hidden agenda, she makes a perfect foil for Binoche’s fretting diva, even as the screenplay has Val defend the sort of shallow, big-budget roles that made Stewart famous. (Ironically, Assayas originally wanted Stewart to play Jo-Ann.) Clouds of Sils Maria is a little too self-aware to really draw blood, but as a showcase for two great actresses—yes, two—it’s superb.

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