Recalling the best movies about actors, from All About Eve to Birdman, Clouds of Sils Maria is a bonbon spiked with wit and malice. It’s also a penetrating look into the female psyche, a specialty of critic-turned-filmmaker Olivier Assayas, who wrote Juliette Binoche her first starring role, as a young actress in 1985’s Rendez-vous. Assayas has again cast Binoche as an actress, this time as Maria Enders, a 40-ish film star aging out of the parts she covets.
Binoche is potent perfection in the part. Trouble starts when Maria is offered a role in a stage adaptation of Maloja Snake, the film that made her a star 20 years earlier. No longer the sexy new kid on the block, Maria is now asked to play the middle-aged assistant with an erotic obsession for her young boss.
It’s Val (Kristen Stewart), Maria’s own personal assistant, who encourages her boss to take the part of the older woman. It’s also Val who encourages Maria to look at Jo-Ann Ellis (a feisty Chloë Grace Moretz), the Hollywood nova being tapped to play the role Maria made famous. In a woundingly funny scene, Maria watches Jo-Ann onscreen in a cheesy sci-fi epic and wonders what this teen darling of the tabloids has to do with acting, or with her.
It’s fun to see art and life intersect so teasingly. Stewart knows firsthand the heat of the fame spotlight on Jo-Ann. But as the lowly assistant, the Twilight star gets to watch the celeb circus from a distance. The role of Val calls for a baleful eye, rare cunning and expert comic timing. Stewart nails every nuance. It’s a sensational performance that earned Stewart a César, the French Oscar that no American actress had ever won. Sweet.
It’s a pleasure to watch Stewart and Binoche mix it up onscreen as Val and Maria play power games to prep Maria for the role she fears. Running lines and comparing lives in a chalet high in the Swiss Alps, they get to see the literal Maloja Snake, a meteorological oddity when clouds move between mountains in the form of a serpent. Don’t get too hung up on metaphors. Enjoy this film for the virtuoso acting of Binoche and Stewart, and the strange and beautiful artwork Assayas has made of them pinballing around the notion of what it means to be a woman under a microscope.