Along with her younger assistant Val (Stewart), respected actor Maria Enders (Binoche) reluctantly agrees to revisit Maloja Snake, the play that brought her acclaim as an 18-year-old actress. Only this time she is asked to take on the older, more embittered role, that forces her to question acting and herself.
Its misleading title suggests a dull-ass film about life in a nunnery but Clouds Of Sils Maria is anything but. Olivier Assayas’ thoughtful drama takes on big themes (youth versus experience, art versus commerce) delivered in small terms, enlivened by two terrific performances from Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart, who became the first American actress to win a César (a French Oscar).
Binoche’s Maria is an international star, mixing serious stage and screen work with Hollywood blockbusters (“I’m sick of hanging from wires in front of greenscreens,” she bemoans). Stewart’s Val is a PA micro-managing Maria’s life on two phones or running lines with her on a play that comments on their own relationship. It is a fascinating, credible look behind the curtain of a starry life but is also about acting itself, the difference between classic and modern styles, between intuition and technique, and about how age can infuse approaches to creativity.
Binoche is animated and luminous, Stewart is low-key and introvert but both achieve stunning levels of naturalism. As they hike, share cigarettes or rehearse, their to and fro crackles with electricity. An argument that superhero movies have as much value as films set on “farms or factories” is priceless. There is plot incident (a surprise death early on, a suicide attempt late in the day) but this is about incremental shifts in relationships, respecting the audience to fill in the gaps.
If you have no truck with the lives of pampered thesps, perhaps this isn’t for you. A breezy Chloë Grace Moretz undercuts the preciousness as the young hotshot cast in Binoche’s original stage role, getting trashed on TMZ videos or mouthing off on chat shows. And Stewart isn’t above having a pop at her own past. Her eye-roll over the rise of werewolf movies is telling.
It gives artistic types an easy ride but it's a feast of rich writing and great acting. And if you've only ever seen Kristen Stewart in Twilight movies, she is in a different class here.