Clouds of Sils Maria

Clouds of Sils Maria, drama, rated R, in English and French with sub­ti­tles, Vi­o­let Crown, 3.5 chiles

Pasatiempo - - HAPPENING IN MAY - — Jonathan Richards

The aging curve for men and women is no­to­ri­ously un­fair. Nowhere is this more keenly felt than in the act­ing busi­ness, where lead roles for women over forty dry up like Cal­i­for­nia or­chards, while men go on get­ting work and get­ting the girl well into their Medi­care years.

Olivier As­sayas (Car­los, Sum­mer Hours), chal­lenged by the actress Juliette Binoche to cre­ate a story re­flect­ing the fem­i­nine ex­pe­ri­ence, has come up with a drama about an aging (yes, that word, even for a woman as age­lessly beau­ti­ful as Binoche) star com­ing face to face with the specter of her younger self. The movie has echoes of the 1950 Bette Davis clas­sic All About Eve — and in the way it end­lessly re­flects its char­ac­ters upon them­selves, it may also stir mem­o­ries of the great mir­ror scene in Lady From Shang­hai.

French movie star Maria En­ders (Binoche) is en route to Zurich to ac­cept an award for an old friend, the reclu­sive Swiss writer-direc­tor Wil­helm Mel­chior, when her young Amer­i­can as­sis­tant, Val (Kristen Ste­wart), jug­gling cell­phones and dropped calls on the speed­ing train, gets the news that Mel­chior is dead. The trib­ute be­comes a eu­logy, and plans Maria and the play­wright had been dis­cussing for a se­quel to the play that made them fa­mous a gen­er­a­tion ear­lier go for naught.

The play, Maloja Snake, was about a mid­dle-aged ex­ec­u­tive, He­lena, who falls dis­as­trously in love with her ma­nip­u­la­tive young as­sis­tant, Si­grid. As an eighteenyear-old, Maria made her break­through in stage and film pro­duc­tions play­ing Si­grid. At the Mel­chior me­mo­rial, she is ap­proached by an ac­claimed young stage direc­tor, Klaus Di­ester­weg (Lars Eidinger), about ap­pear­ing in a Lon­don re­vival of the play — but now, in the cruel cy­cle of time, she is asked to play He­lena. A teenage actress, Jo-Ann El­lis (Chloë Grace Moretz), wildly fa­mous for su­per­hero films and off-screen es­capades, will take the part of Si­grid.

Maria has all sorts of rea­sons for re­fus­ing, but she re­luc­tantly ac­cepts, re­tir­ing to Mel­chior’s chalet (put at her dis­posal by his widow) in the Swiss moun­tain vil­lage of Sils Maria to work on the role with Val. The lo­ca­tion has two haunt­ing un­der­cur­rents. It was here in 1881, in the rar­i­fied air of the Alps, that Ni­et­zsche, “6,000 feet be­yond man and time,” mused on the con­cept of eter­nal re­cur­rence in Thus Spake Zarathus­tra. And it’s here that the phe­nom­e­non of the Maloja Snake can be ob­served — a ser­pen­tine trail of clouds that surges up the val­ley, pre­sag­ing a change in the weather.

As Maria runs dia­logue with Val in the chalet, and dur­ing their moun­tain hikes, the line be­tween script and re­al­ity is con­stantly blurred, much as As­sayas mud­dies the line be­tween real life and his movie char­ac­ters, and be­tween his movie char­ac­ters and the play they are re­hears­ing. (Thirty years ago As­sayas co-scripted Ren­dez-vous, the An­dré Téch­iné film that made Binoche a star.) The erotic ten­sion be­tween He­lena and Si­grid is re­flected in the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Maria and Val, point­edly in a skinny-dip­ping scene in a frigid moun­tain lake. Jo-Ann El­lis’ su­per­star­dom in a pop-movie sen­sa­tion re­ver­ber­ates in the cast­ing of Ste­wart, huge for her Twi­light vam­pire films (and the first Amer­i­can win­ner of France’s César Award for Best Actress in a Sup­port­ing Role for her work here).

Both ac­tresses are ter­rific as they nav­i­gate the rapids of cross-gen­er­a­tional prej­u­dices and power ex­er­cises. Maria is an actress, and in Binoche’s self-aware per­for­mance she is al­ways on, play­ing the role of her­self as the diva in sit­u­a­tions public and pri­vate. There is a mo­ment or two when she hits an ob­vi­ous note, but even that is not out of keep­ing with her char­ac­ter. Ste­wart, who, like El­lis, is us­ing this ve­hi­cle as a dec­la­ra­tion of in­de­pen­dence from her pop-su­per­star im­age, plays with a dead­pan sub­tlety that flares into out­bursts where she stakes her right to her own opin­ions and the va­lid­ity of her youth cul­ture in the face of Maria’s mock­ing con­de­scen­sion.

That cross­cur­rent of mod­ern cul­ture and tech­nol­ogy is con­stantly buf­fet­ing the char­ac­ters in As­sayas’ prob­ing screen­play. Maria is con­temp­tu­ous of the in­ter­net and of Google, but they are where she turns to for in­for­ma­tion about the girl who’s usurp­ing her role as Si­grid, or for tem­per­a­men­tal Skyp­ing ses­sions with her agent. When, near the end, an­other young direc­tor ap­proaches Maria about ap­pear­ing in a new su­per­hero film, she turns him down with a pa­tron­iz­ing smile, but you can’t be sure there won’t be a fol­low-up meet­ing, given the brave new world of en­croach­ing age and the di­rec­tion of con­tem­po­rary cinema she finds her­self fac­ing. Maria is con­stantly laugh­ing at the pop cul­ture that Val pas­sion­ately de­fends; by the end, it is slith­er­ing around her like the sin­u­ous clouds snaking up the Maloja Val­ley.

There’s a change in the weather: Kristen Ste­wart and Juliette Binoche

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