“Clouds of Sils Maria” finds the mercurial French filmmaker Olivier Assayas and a trio of excellent, unexpected actresses playing mind games with the audience. But what mind games! A meditation on fame, acting, aging, and acceptance, “Clouds” is a multilayered rapture on the subject of woman, performing. Not only does the film demand repeat viewings, it rewards them.
The first time through, you’ll probably just be basking in what appears to be — and is — a hand-picked bouquet to Juliette Binoche. The actress, forever elfin but with a core of steel, plays Maria Enders, a world-renowned film star who started in French art films and progressed to global blockbusters. Think Marion Cotillard a decade or two down the line. When “Clouds of Sils Maria” opens, Maria is traveling by train with her personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), to give a speech in Switzerland in honor of the aging playwright who discovered her 20 years earlier. Halfway through the trip comes a text: The playwright has died.
This is the first dent of many in Maria’s practiced celebrity shell. The play in which the 20-year-old Maria made her name, “Maloja Snake,” cast her as Sigrid, a youthful lesbian destroyer of an older businesswoman lover, Helena. Now a German director (Lars Eidinger) comes with an offer: a new staging of “Maloja Snake” in which Maria is to play the older woman, while the role of Sigrid will be taken by Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz), a Hollywood superstar brat with Dakota Fanning’s talent and Lindsay Lohan’s headlines.
“Clouds of Sils Maria” has great, wise fun depicting the life of a Euro superstar uneasily co-existing with the juggernaut of the American entertainment industry. Maria lives in a cocoon of privilege, unaware of the latest stars and other developments in pop culture. (Why should she have to be? She is pop culture.) Especially rich is the scene in which Maria and Valentine sneak into a Swiss cinema to watch Jo-Ann’s latest sci-fi blockbuster — it’s toweringly ridiculous, in 3-D. Maria also has desperate Skype meetings with her Los Angeles agent as she frets about whether to take the role of Helena. “I’m Sigrid — I want to stay Sigrid!” she wails.
Underneath this surface puckishness is a cool eye on the fate of female celebrities who have the nerve to age past 35 as well as on women who are used to being seen and are startled to realize they’re now seen as something else, if at all. What happens when a siren gets older? Is she still performing or playing a new role? And what relation does the performance have to the person who’s really in there?
“Clouds of Sils Maria” chews all this over with fluid, confident, talky style, relying on its cast to plumb the depths and make connections. This includes Binoche, certainly, but also Stewart, who as Valentine gets almost as much screen time as Maria. In her unfussy jeans and T-shirts, her owlish horn-rims, her air of unflappable calm, Valentine is the reality principle her boss needs. The younger woman keeps the star’s schedule, tells her who’s hot and not, shows her YouTube videos of Jo-Ann’s paparazzi misadventures — in general, she coddles Maria as she is paid to do.
But Valentine is also the movie’s secret hero, pushing Maria toward a reckoning with the role of Helena and with herself. About midway through “Clouds of Sils Maria,” the two settle into the dead playwright’s chalet high up in the Alps and proceed to run lines from “Maloja Snake,” Valentine taking the role of Sigrid that Maria played in her youth. These are scenes of high-wire acting mastery, the two women dipping in and out of character, switching roles off the page and on, and wrestling toward a greater understanding of the older woman whom Maria once pitied and now has to be. The echoes and meanings of these sequences multiply on and on, commenting on these characters, these actors, women in general, and the roles we all perform on all the stages of our lives. One never gets to the bottom of them.
It bears mentioning that Stewart keeps up with Binoche every step of the way, giving a low-key but subtly vibrant performance that’s alert to each curve on this movie’s twisting mountain roads. Because of the “Twilight” movies and the actress’s own minimalist acting style, we like to rag on Stewart in this country. She won a Cesar, France’s Oscar, for her performance in this film, the first US actress to do so? Surely that’s a joke?
It’s not. Stewart can do very good work within her narrow range of affect, and “Clouds” offers proof that her range is expanding. The movie also allows the actress to comment on the “Twilight” ruckus and the absurdity of fame in ways that are delicious to us and presumably to her as well. The film’s title (and the play’s) comes from a meteorological phenomenon particular to this Alpine valley, one in which clouds stream like a serpent through the passes. (Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux captures it with haunting evanescence.) Someone describes the effect as “the true nature of the landscape revealing itself,” and one can imagine Stewart and the rest of the cast regarding this film’s fiction in much the same way, as an overlay that shows us the contours of life and career we’re usually too blind to see.
But this is ultimately Binoche’s film and Maria’s journey. (Moretz is acidly amusing as the Hollywood brat, but she gets comparatively few scenes.) The star effortlessly keeps pace with the filmmaker’s empathetic tricks and his nods to such foreign-language classics as Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” and Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’Avventura.”
For example, at a certain point in “Clouds of Sils Maria,” a pivotal character disappears in the sort of mysterious plot development that makes well-versed art-house audiences nod their heads while less adventurous crowds tear up their armrests in frustration. It briefly hobbles the movie, or, more precisely, a viewer who might get hung up on what exactly is going on here. But it also may simply be Assayas’s way of saying this character’s job is done, presented so as to make us wonder whether that character was even there in the first place.
I vote yes, but your mileage may vary. “Clouds of Sils Maria” raises questions we rarely think to ask and leaves the answers suspended in the mountain air.