By William Wolf


Juliette Binoche is such a fine actress that it is always fascinating to watch her in any role that she plays. In “Clouds of Sils Maria,” showcased at the 2014 New York Film Festival and written and directed by Olivier Assayas, she is a celebrated actress scheduled to be in a play in which many years ago she played the younger woman to an opposite older woman in the drama with a lesbian theme. Time has passed and now she is to play the older woman. Despite all the heavy going, the exploration of emotions and unsettling juxtaposition of age, the film doesn’t really amount to much in the way of depth.

The essence is the intertwining of life and art. (How many times have we encountered that theme?) Binoche as Maria has an assistant, Valentine, given a fine, in-depth performance by Kristen Stewart. What’s going on between them in their intense working relationship can be taken as a parallel to what the play is about. Valentine does line readings with Maria, and one can feel the tension mounting between them, almost as if the play's characters become embodied in them. All this is against the overall struggle by Maria to come to terms with life at her present age and stage of her career.

There is some fine scenery as much of the story unfolds in Switzerland, where Maria has gone to help honor a man she has regarded as a major influence in her career, but he suddenly dies before the event can take place. She retreats to work with Valentine, and eventually must meet with the popular younger actress to play her old role, Jo-Ann (Chloë Grace Moritz), and as you can imagine, seeing such youth rattles her, but she keeps up a good front.

An unsolved mystery in the film is exactly what happens to Valentine, whom we know has been offered work elsewhere. But the way in which she suddenly disappears from th radar is unsettling. I missed her presence.

Assayas knows how to make a showy film, but ultimately we are left with a rather clichéd plot in the behind-the-scenes acting genre. This year more compelling examples of the genre have surfaced with the adaptation of Philip Roth’s book, “The Humbling,” starring Al Pacino, and “Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance,” starring Michael Keaton. Of course, we do get to enjoy Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart and those are major pleasures. Reviewed October 15, 2014.


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