Juliette Binoche plays an actress aging (not so) gracefully in ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’

  • By Stephanie Merry The Washington Post
  • Wednesday, April 29, 2015 12:56pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

“Clouds of Sils Maria” is the type of movie you’ll want to rehash later. Olivier Assayas’s drama is intriguingly ambiguous and strangely constructed, and there seems to be symbolism lurking in every shot. And yet, despite acting that dazzles and no shortage of artistry, the movie is more fun to ponder than to sit through.

Juliette Binoche plays Maria Enders, an actress who rocketed to fame decades earlier at 18 with the stage production and movie remake of “Maloja Snake.” In it, she played Sigrid, a cruel young woman who seduces her older boss, Helena, and destroys her life.

Since that role, Maria has accrued quite the filmography, co-starring alongside Harrison Ford in political thrillers and flying high in an “X-Men” movie. But having reached her threshold for wires and green screen, Maria is ready for a new project. And just then, a script drops into her lap.

A young and up-and-coming director plans to produce “Maloja Snake,” and he wants Maria to play Helena this time. The role of Sigrid will go to the American starlet Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), who is best known for drunken and drug-fueled shenanigans.

Maria’s personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), thinks her boss should take the part, but Maria resists. She still sees herself as Sigrid, she tells anyone who will listen. But eventually she gives in, partly due to grief, perhaps, since the original director of “Maloja” has just died.

Much of “Clouds” takes place in the small Swiss enclave of Sils Maria, where the play’s namesake can be found. The Maloja Snake is a bizarre and beautiful natural phenomenon, a cloud formation that winds through a mountain valley like a giant python. It’s also a harbinger of bad weather.

Maria and Valentine spend their days hiking and running lines; they occasionally go out for drunken evenings of gambling or stay in and sip wine while doing Internet searches for incriminating photos of Jo-Ann. All the while, Maria struggles with the role of Helena. She can’t identify with this pathetic older woman who’s completely powerless against the beguiling, if toxic, lure of youth.

The two women debate the role over and over again. You could say that the movie is just one long conversation, and even the best discussions get tiresome at some point. Sections drag, despite the splendid performances from Binoche and Stewart.

Still, there’s plenty to chew over. Maria and Valentine have a sisterly bond — they’re loving, but also argumentative, with each other — although there are fleeting intimations of mutual romantic feelings. And Maria’s dependence on her young charge echoes the relationship between Sigrid and Helena. (If that’s not meta enough, Valentine loves celebrity gossip sites and relishes being the first to know about Jo-Ann’s affair with a married man. In real life, Stewart has been a paparazzi target for years, particularly after she was caught kissing her director from “Snow White and the Huntsman,” who was also married.)

One of the movie’s recurring themes is our urge to oversimplify. Maria and Valentine are constantly trying to label each other in easy terms. “You were in love with him,” Valentine declares when she and Maria are chatting about the late “Maloja Snake” director who made her famous. But it isn’t so straightforward — nothing in the movie is. And that makes it feel more realistic despite the occasionally stilted dialogue. People and feelings are often too nebulous for categorization. Nevertheless, people always try.

In addition to the tremendous acting, Assayas’s direction has a novel feel, with clever fade-outs reminiscent of theater, which happen just when some bit of action is about to take place. But there are also some curious decisions. When Valentine is driving along hairpin turns on a mountain road, a strange and dreamy sequence begins, accompanied by loud discordant music that will no doubt have viewers in the target demographic covering their ears.

Moments like that come and go, taking us out of the movie before our search for understanding pulls us back in. It’s a flaw, sure, but not enough to outweigh the feat of drawing us back into the movie so long after it’s over.

“Clouds of Sils Maria” (2 1/2 stars)

Rating: R, for stong language and nudity

Showing: Seven Gables

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