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Summarizing the story of Clouds of Sils Maria makes it sound full of clichés: A successful middle-aged woman, reflecting on her own mortality, gets drawn into an intimate, complicated relationship with a young colleague. She admires the girl for all the things she used to be. Eventually, her admiration makes her weak, and the young woman usurps the older one. Oliver Assayas’s intimate and mesmerizing new drama refracts this simple story of loss and aging through a narrative prism, casting new light—as well as some heat—in every direction.
Juliette Binoche plays Maria, a renowned film and stage actress grieving over the loss of two men. The first is her husband; she is in the middle of an ugly, contentious divorce. But the bigger blow comes when her mentor, a legendary playwright who took a chance on her as a young actress, suddenly commits suicide. She learns the news from her personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart) on a train ride to a remote Norwegian town where the playwright is being honored.
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In this emotional vacuum, her professional and personal lives become dangerously intertwined when she takes on a new artistic challenge. A young director is reviving the play that made Maria famous—a drama about a businesswoman and her young assistant—and has asked her to play the part of the older woman. As Maria agonizes over the role and its implications, she and Valentine escape to her late mentor’s cabin in Switzerland, where, as the thick mountain clouds surround them, they run lines, drink, and become far more emotionally entangled than either of them can admit. Meanwhile, Maria starts to research her new co-star—Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young tabloid queen who is taking on her former role in the new revival—and begins to rethink her participation in the project.
Throughout, the interplay between the two actresses is fascinating; Binoche is all raw vulnerability, while Stewart keeps her motives and feelings hidden just under her cool surface. The performances adeptly reflect the film’s themes, as Valentine’s quiet confidence is a threat to Maria, who quickly unravels under youth’s unstoppable force. The casting, too, is spot-on: Binoche is, of course, a middle-aged actress playing a middle-aged actress. When Valentine describes the infamous Jo-Ann to Maria—“She’s very different from what you’ve read in the papers”—it’s hard not to imagine Stewart describing herself. Stewart, after all, was prime tabloid fodder when dating and breaking up with her Twilight costar Robert Pattinson.
Indeed, Stewart is one of the great revelations of Sils Maria. Binoche’s brilliance is easy to take for granted, but the former teen idol matches her in every scene. In a subtle, naturalistic performance, she captures both our imagination and our sympathies, no small achievement in a film that thrives on never letting viewers know quite where they stand.
Clouds of Sils Maria opens April 17 at Landmark E Street Cinema.