It wouldn’t be fair to call “Clouds of Sils Maria” a comeback vehicle for Kristen Stewart because the “Twilight” heroine and tabloid favorite hasn’t really gone anywhere. But Stewart’s blazing, blunt, pitch-perfect performance in this film serves as a reminder she’s actually one of the best actresses of her generation.
Look at it this way. Stewart shares the screen with the great Juliette Binoche in scene after scene, and holds her own every step of the way.
In this gorgeous and striking and sometimes brutally insightful work from writer-director Olivier Assayas, Stewart plays Valentine, the preternaturally composed personal assistant to Binoche’s Maria, one of the world’s great movie stars. Maria is approaching a certain age and she isn’t particularly thrilled about that. (As if any woman, or man, is giddy over the prospect of turning the corner past 40.)
We open in a train zipping its way to Zurich, where Maria will accept a lifetime achievement award for one Wilhelm Melchior, a reclusive playwright and filmmaker who gave Maria her first big break some two decades previous. Melchior cast Maria as a young woman who manipulates a woman twice her age to tragic results in a play (and then the movie adaptation) called “Maloja Snake,” and the role made Maria a star.
Now there’s talk of a remake — with a young hotshot director named Klaus (Lars Eidinger) looking to cast Maria in the role of the older woman. Maria is equal parts flattered and horrified by this development.
(Sidebar: the “Maloja Snake,” so I’ve learned, is the term for a thick, white cloud bank that winds through the Alps.)
Valetine multi-tasks while Maria has a contentious telephone conversation with the attorney for her soon-to-be ex-husband. We immediately get a feel for the dynamic between these two women. Yes, Maria is a major movie star and nearly twice Valentine’s age, but Valentine is as much the voice of reason and almost an older sibling figure as she is a personal assistant. One gets the sense Valentine is one of the few people in Maria’s life who speaks freely and openly to the great, internationally renowned actress.
If the notion of playing the older woman in a remake of “Maloja Snake” isn’t daunting enough, Maria is shaken to the core by Wilhelm’s unexpected death. Everywhere she turns, she sees her own mortality.
“Clouds of Sils Maria” becomes a movie within a movie within a movie, as Maria agonizes over whether to play that older woman, even though she still FEELS like the younger woman in the story.
Klaus has cast an American action movie superstar named Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz) in the role of the younger woman. Valentine tells Maria she HAS to take the part. Not only is Klaus perhaps the best director of his generation, says Valentine; Jo-Ann is also blazingly talented, despite her reputation as a self-destructive hot mess.
Assayas and his director of photography Yorick Le Saux give us some overwhelmingly beautiful scenes set high in the Swiss Alps — and some expertly choreographed interiors in which Valentine and Maria run lines from the film that have deep and cutting parallels to their own relationship. At times it’s as if we’re watching “Who’s Afraid of All About Eve.” The dialogue, while occasionally a bit too heavy-handed, is often razor-sharp and leaves a mark.
In addition to the superb work from Binoche and Stewart, we’re treated to a stellar performance by Chloe Grace Moretz as Jo-Ann, a whip-smart, calculating young star who shatters the preconceived, Googled stereotypes Maria holds of her, and wins her over with immense and intense flattery. (Later, when Maria tries to give Jo-Ann an acting note, she quickly learns Jo-Ann is no pushover.) It’s rare when a film has three robust, deeply drawn female characters — and Binoche, Moretz and Stewart deliver memorable, nuanced performances.
“Clouds of Sils Maria” is an expertly filmed insider’s look at the film business, the trappings of fame and the unstoppable, sometimes bone-chilling march of time. It’s complex and wickedly funny and dark, and it features the best ensemble acting of any film I’ve seen so far this year.