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Clouds of Sils Maria (8/10)

by Tony Medley

Runtime 124 minutes.

OK for children.

With lots and lots of talk here between Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) and her assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), the deal is that Maria is about to undertake a role in a play (a real play written by William Melchior) that brought her to stardom 20 years ago. Then she played a young woman, Sigrid, who drives her boss to suicide. Now she’s going to play the boss. Sigrid is being played by a younger, wilder, version of herself, Chloë Grace Moretz. All this is forcing Maria to face the fact that she is aging and to question her life and where her career has taken her.

While she is rehearsing with Valentine, and Valentine is reading the lines to her, one keeps getting the feeling that neither of them is acting and that the lines they are reciting are really the way each of them feels, young Valentine and older Maria. It is a mesmerizing dichotomy.

Writer/director Oliver Assayas admits that this is somewhat autobiographical as his relationship with Binoche goes back to the beginnings for both of their careers, when they both worked on the same film. Their paths continued to cross throughout the next 20 years. He explains, “It was Juliette who had first had the feeling there was some missed opportunity, or rather film, that remained virtual in our shared history, and that would bring both of us back to the essential. With this same intuition in mind, I began taking notes, then breathing life into characters, and then into a story that had been waiting to exist for a long time.”

I happen to believe that Stewart is a highly talented actress who has wasted her talents in those frivolous (albeit lucrative) teenager vampire movies. She shows that talent here as she jousts with veteran Binoche. Their scenes together are little short of brilliant.

There is another scene in which they both strip to jump in a lake. Binoche, a veteran French actress, strips all the way with full frontal nudity (well, her breasts are not seen), but Stewart keeps her bra and panties on. While maybe Stewart balked at nudity (if so, good for her), it could be a commentary on Maria showing that she was still young and Valentine was showing that maybe Maria doesn’t understand what “young” is now, and that just taking off all your clothes doesn’t make you young when you’re not.

As an extra added attraction, the film displays the Majola “snake,” a cloud formation that sometimes flows up (or down) the valley all the way from Sils Mars to St. Moritz, from which the film gets its name (although the “clouds” have a double meaning). I don’t know if there was any movie magic involved in the filming of this, but it’s a memorable sight.

As I said, there is a lot of talk, but there is tension throughout that director Oliver Assayas handles well enough, thanks in large part, to Stewart’s exceptional performance, that I didn’t look at my watch too many times. It might be a chick flick, but it’s a good one. It might not be for everyone, but I liked it.