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Women Ascend With Uncertainty In 'Clouds Of Sils Maria'

Kristen Stewart and Juliette Binoche in Olivier Assayas' Clouds Of Sils Maria. Carole Bethuel // CG Cinema hide caption

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Kristen Stewart and Juliette Binoche in Olivier Assayas' Clouds Of Sils Maria.

Carole Bethuel // CG Cinema

"The play is an object," Val (Kristen Stewart) tells actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) in Clouds of Sils Maria while helping her rehearse for a role. "It changes depending how you look at it."

One of the many impressive elements of Olivier Assayas' rich, remarkably intelligent film is how it explores every angle of its own story. It won't ever be mistaken for Inception, but Clouds is also a puzzle film, even if that's not evident on the surface. Its plot is relatively straightforward (though not entirely devoid of mystery); you won't need to guess and debate about what happened when and why. But it's nevertheless a work of many moving parts, one to take apart and put back together again repeatedly.

The bulk of the film is devoted to the relationship between Maria and her assistant, Val. We meet them just as Maria, a renowned actress who has worked in the theater as well as in films both prestigious and blockbuster, is on her way to accept a prize in Zurich on behalf of director Wilhelm Melchior. When Maria was a teenager, Melchior made her famous by casting her in Maloja Snake, a play about a young woman who seduces her older boss and drives her to suicide.

Wilhelm dies before the ceremony, however, and the suddenly somber, reflective affair prompts Maria to accept the elder role in a new production of Maloja Snake opposite Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz, delightful and cunning in equal measure), an actress known more for her rehab stints and constant tabloid presence than her performances.

From there, Clouds retreats to Wilhelm's now-empty home in Sils Maria, a town nested in the Swiss Alps, where Maria and Val hole up to rehearse. The play within the play explicitly mirrors Maria and Val's relationship in only one of the movie's overtly literal analogies. At other points, the parallels extend beyond the screen into real life, as when Val — played by the star of the oft-mocked Twilight movies — urges Maria to take Jo-Ann seriously as an actress despite the fact that she appears only in seemingly mindless blockbusters.

Assayas, who also wrote Clouds, is interested in such superficialities as initial points of contrast. The play and the real-life comparisons offer an apparent sense of order — a world split into simple contrasts of old and young, high and low culture — that the movie then breaks through. To start, Maria appears as a paragon of classic elegance — her suspicions of the Internet and modern technology reflect her age, but her dress and demeanor at Wilhelm's ceremony suggest a timeless grace and sophistication. It's Val who seems harried and out of control.

That hard opposition begins to crumble when Val leaves Maria alone at the ceremony, at which point her self-assurance diminishes without Val's support. It fades entirely once the two move to Sils Maria.

As powerful as Binoche's performance is, Stewart surpasses her. She best embodies the antitheses of her character, her quiet apathy concealing a turmoil of envy, desire, respect and simmering contempt. Val is also arguably the more difficult role; she's given less opportunity to wield control but required to nonetheless display power. Whereas Binoche expertly manages to display Maria's ever-shifting but rarely concealed emotions without seeming maudlin, Stewart has relatively few chances to offer a similarly direct view of Val's feelings ("I never know if I should believe what little you do tell me," Maria says to Val at one point). On the few occasions Val opens up, she almost immediately retreats back into what seems to be a more submissive role.

The power dynamics here resemble those in All About Eve or Black Swan, with the important difference that Assayas isn't concerned with a protégé supplanting her master. In fact, the only wholly unsympathetic character in the movie is an actor who tells Maria that Maloja Snake "tells a simple story" about two completely contrasting women, the younger of whom "squeezes everything she can out of" her older mistress, who is in turn "fascinated by her own downfall." Reality can appear that clear-cut on the surface, but what Clouds reveals with time is a more complicated and seemingly endless series of transmutations.

Assayas may indulge in overt declarations of his themes, but there's no certainty to his approach. He softly and persistently disturbs the ground beneath our feet, never content with a position unless he has considered its opposite. That method pervades every aspect of the movie: Jo-Ann's rowdy public image is in contrast to her quiet behavior in person, with a hint of manipulation in both; Maria's disdain toward younger artists who have a natural knack for PR proves hypocritical, given the deliberately chosen "classy" image that Val helps craft for her.

The movement between opposites is heightened and perfected, though, in Maria and Val's relationship. After disagreeing over a reading of Maloja Snake, Maria tells Val that she can't ever understand a character without embodying her: "Thinking about a play is different than living it." But the reality seems to be the reverse. Maria is all interpretation and thought, while Val is the one who acts throughout, both for herself and for Maria. The shifts in power between them, and later between Maria and Jo-Ann, depend on which quality — consideration or action, aged wisdom or youthful exuberance — matters more. To its final shot, the movie offers no conclusion as to whom comes out on top.

It's a quality of great art that it can hold competing ideas aloft and give them equal weight; it's the magic of the best art that it can satisfy while leaving the conflict unresolved. Clouds is outstanding in its individual components — its script, performances, cinematography, and pacing — but more importantly, it's that magical kind of work: a complete, perfectly crafted, fixed object that, upon reflection, remains in perpetual motion.

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