The aging actress has always been a deliciously potent subject for movies, from Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard" to Margo Channing in "All About Eve" and way beyond.
It's clear why: The struggle to remain young and vital is so universal, yet especially urgent for a movie star. It's also because playing an aging star is such a wonderfully juicy role for — well, an aging star.
Which brings us to gorgeous Juliette Binoche, who, at 51, is hardly what we'd call aging — even if she looked her age, which she doesn't, we all know 50 is the new 30. Still, in "Clouds of Sils Maria," her luminous, expressive face becomes an ideal canvas for director Olivier Assayas to meditate on the interweaving forces of time, age, identity, self-worth, art, and oh, a few other things.
Assayas also makes excellent use of a compelling Kristen Stewart, moving yet further from her "Twilight" days (and slyly mocking them) as a cerebral, doubt-plagued personal assistant. Assayas completes his intriguing actress triangle with young Chloe Grace Moretz as an of-the-moment Hollywood starlet who seeks more serious acting cred.
Binoche plays Maria Enders, a 40-something French actress who's found success both in serious European work and in Hollywood blockbusters (much like Binoche herself). "I'm tired of acting hanging from wires in front of green screens," she tells her assistant, Valentine (Stewart). "I've outgrown it."
All the more reason, Valentine will argue, that Maria should accept an offer to star in a London revival of the play — and then film __ that made her a star two decades earlier. In "Maloja Snake," named after a mystical Alpine cloud formation that signals bad weather, Maria once shone as the ingenue Sigrid, whose potent charms drive her older boss, Helena, to suicide.
But now, Maria's being asked to play not Sigrid, but Helena. She hates the character for her weakness and desperation. Making things worse, the actress who first played the role ended up dying soon after in a car accident, adding superstition to the mix.
But Maria realizes it's an opportunity she can't pass up — especially with the publicity that Jo-Ann Ellis (Moretz) will generate; a Lindsay Lohan type, she's a TMZ regular and utter catnip to the paparazzi.
So she agrees, and the lengthy middle section of the film finds her — hair now cut unglamorously short, with no more makeup or sleek gowns — holed away to rehearse lines with Valentine in a remote Swiss Alps chalet, near where one can occasionally spy that eerie-but-beautiful cloud formation. In these increasingly intense scenes, the line often seems intentionally blurred between the two women's real-life interaction and the roles they're reading.
Amid all the subtext about aging, there's also an exploration of what constitutes art. Maria and Valentine check out Jo-Ann's latest Hollywood film, watching her zap an opponent with her superpowers, and then share a lively debate. "There's no less truth there than in a supposedly serious film," Valentine insists, to which Maria simply bursts out laughing. Assayas is purposely playing here with Stewart's "Twilight" history, and Stewart seems to enjoy playing along.
In another striking moment, we're treated to dramatic black-and-white footage of the Maloja Snake taken in 1924 by mountaineer Arnold Fanck, contrasting with Assayas' own, stunning views from today (all the Alps scenery is breathtaking.)
In many ways, "Clouds of Sils Maria" is very similar to the mountain path that Maria and Valentine hike one morning, hoping to catch a peek at the ominous snaking clouds. It's winding, and it sure takes time and patience, and it's not all that clearly marked. But by the end, you're left with quite a view.
"Clouds of Sils Maria," a Sundance Selects release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America "for language and brief graphic nudity." Running time: 123 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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