French writer-director Olivier Assayas journeys into the foggy Alps and into the actress psyche in “Clouds of Sils Maria,” a remarkable drama centering on three women.
Assayas (“Summer Hours”) makes psychologically textured movies filled with talk and ideas, and “Clouds” has much to say about cinema, theater, aging, death, technology and weather patterns. Characters navigate personal needs and meteorological mist in this psychojourney.
Juliette Binoche plays Maria, a respected 40-something French actress still finding work, albeit in mindless blockbusters, in a youth-obsessed industry. On a train in the Swiss Alps, Maria is heading for an event where she will celebrate her mentor, Wilhelm Melchior.
Fielding cell-phone calls nearby is Valentine (Kristen Stewart), Maria’s competent assistant, who caters to the high-strung actress’ insecurities and keeps her web-averse boss current on Internet celebrity gossip.
Maria’s shakeup begins with shocking news: Wilhelm has died. The congratulatory presentation becomes a memorial tribute.
In the mountains, where a mystical-looking cloud formation looks haunting, Maria, accompanied by Val, begins addressing her own mortality.
Her unease intensifies when a theater director (Lars Eidinger) convinces her to appear in a new version of “The Maloja Snake,” the play by Wilhelm that launched her career 20-plus years ago. Maria then played 18-year-old Sigrid, who becomes romantically involved with, and destroys, her 40-year-old employer, Helena. Now, Maria will play the older character, who commits suicide.
As Maria and Valentine hike in the woods and discuss the play, Maria battling her fears, struggles to inhabit the Helena role.
The challenge thickens when Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz), the scandal-prone starlet cast to play Sigrid, arrives. Initially cordial, Jo-Ann soon callously expresses her own ideas about how Sigrid, a role Maria still feels personal about, should be played.
While Jo-Ann is the weakest-defined character, and her shift into “All About Eve” terrain challenges credibility, it doesn’t damage the movie’s exploration of how complicated, intelligent people compromise their talent and dignity to thrive in an industry where flash and fame equal worth.
The movie also is a shining salute to actresses.
Binoche is extraordinary as a self-absorbed but devoted artist, particularly in scenes in which she agonizes to find truth in a role that terrifies her. And she’s a kick in diva mode, donning a Chanel gown and smiling glamorously for photographers.
Stewart’s deadpan Valentine cooly complements Binoche’s Maria. An affectionate energy prevails as the women drink, laugh and skinny-dip together, talking about film, theater, pop culture and Maria’s ex-lovers.
Scenes in which Val, as Sigrid, and Maria, as Helena, run lines are captivating, capturing the friction and erotic charge between the characters. Moretz, with less to work with, is a powerhouse.
Clouds of Sils Mara
Three and a half stars
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloe Grace Moretz, Lars Eidinger
Written and directed by: Olivier Assayas
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes