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Review: 'Clouds of Sils Maria' has more than a great Kristen Stewart perf

The great Olivier Assayas pairs KStew with Juliette Binoche for his latest, an insightful and funny look at acting.

‘Clouds of Sils Maria’
Director:
Olivier Assayas
Stars: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

Nearly every film about aging reaches the same conclusion: what a drag it is getting old. “While We’re Young” prowls deep into the anguish of realizing you can no longer rock a silly Bushwick hipster hat. “Clouds of Sils Maria” is different; it’s more ambivalent on the subject. It’s mature about it, which is not to say it’s chill. Indeed, Marie Enders — an international actress of Juliette Binoche-ish stature (played by Juliette Binoche) — is understandably freaking out. She’s quite reluctantly signed up for the same play that, as an up-and-comer, made her. This time, though, she’ll be playing the older role, while her former part will go to a Lindsay Lohan type (Chloe Grace Moretz) trying, unlike Lohan, to earn back some cred.

This might seem like the start of a pity party, especially as the bulk of it is spent in the Alps, with Maria grouchily relearning the source with the aid of her trusty personal assistant, Valentine (one Kristen Stewart). Then again, this is very much a film by Olivier Assayas. And Olivier Assayas (“Irma Vep,” “Summer Hours,” etc.) does not do histrionics, especially the kinds typically ascribed to actors. He’s passionately dispassionate, and he likes to simply observe and capture, showing how worlds, cultures and, in his period pieces (“Carlos,” “Something in the Air”), eras work. “Clouds” is modern day, and it’s awash in technology: people chat face-to-face over gizmos, learn about events in real time, sometimes while struggling to maintain constant wifi. But this isn’t a tech smackdown; it’s just how things today are.

The same goes with aging. Her new gig may get Maria worrying about time passing (and lots else besides), but it also puts on the rocky road to acceptance of one’s place in the world, grudging though that may be. Assayas’ worlds are busy places: people are always on the move, trying to reinvent themselves or keep in the game — anything to stave off boredom or rot. Like Carlos the Jackal in “Carlos,” Maria has an insatiable need to stay relevant, even as she happily decamps for the far reaches of the planet for some scenic R&R. At heart this is a process film, only the subject is watching someone anguishes over, among other things, the fact that the world will one day march on without her.

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This may seem heavy, and it’s true “Clouds” is more chill than previous Assayas films. Typically his camera whirls around, bottling up immediacy, blasting music. Here, especially when things moves to the country, the camera tends to sit down and watch, complete with conversations told in traditional shot-reverse shots. (The soundtrack too is largely “classical,” briefly interrupted with Primal Scream’s spacy-violent “Kowalski.”) But the tone is playful, more a dramedy than a drama. There’s touches of “Persona” and “L’Avventura” here, but they’re there almost as meta-movie jokes, not intended to be solved. And when Maria and Valentine work through the play, they jump in and out of it, often blurring the lines between not only the text and their own life, but the film we’re watching and real life. What they talk about isn’t just about Maria’s neuroses. She gripes about ditching “X-Men,” around the same time Binoche filed a “Godzilla” cameo. Valentine, meanwhile, gives her a hard time about the celebrity news cycle and defends trashy blockbusters — this from the hounded star of emo vampire movies.

The best joke might be that Stewart quietly steals the movie from Binoche, though it’s more accurate to say that Stewart — a very good actress who in some circles is unfairly maligned despite doing as much anyone could with Bella Swan — is semi-surprisingly every bit Binoche’s equal. Stewart is allowed to make the most of her slightly bored, slightly agitated alto, rattling off a neverending stream of job offers and plans with cucumber cool, raising her voice only slightly, and only when challenging Maria for acting diva or out-of-touch. Assayas films sometimes only give the illusion of modesty, when they’re actually about everything. KStew fits right in.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
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