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In 'Clouds Of Sils Maria,' An Actress Faces Past, Present And Future In An Instant

Apr 10, 2015
Originally published on April 13, 2015 1:00 pm
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Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Kristen Stewart impressed the critics at last year's Cannes Film Festival for her supporting role in the new film "Clouds Of Sils Maria." Stewart plays the personal assistant to an aging movie star played by Juliette Binoche, who is about to appear in a play opposite an infamous young Hollywood actress. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: "Clouds Of Sils Maria" is a high-flown title for a film with many earthly pleasures. But it's that mix of high and earthly that makes the work of the writer/director Olivier Assayas so thrilling. The film is a hall of mirrors. It sounds convoluted in the telling, but it plays easily, like a dream. It centers on a middle-aged film star named Maria Enders, played by Juliette Binoche, and her personal assistant Valentine, played by Kristen Stewart.

In the first scene, they're on a train to Switzerland, where Maria will accept an award for the elderly writer, who, many years earlier, cast her in a play called "Maloja Snake" that became a film and made her a star. As the train winds in and out of the Alps, she and Valentine juggle calls from agents, organizers, executives, Maria's divorce lawyer. And then comes the news the playwright has died, and Maria is forced to face her past, present and future at the same instant.

A hotshot stage director wants to revive "Maloja Snake" with a key change. Maria had played Sigrid, personal assistant to an older woman named Helena, whom the young woman seduces and abandons with devastating consequences. Now the director wants Maria to play Helena to the Sigrid of the blistering 19-year-old superstar Jo-Ann Ellis, played by Chloe Grace Moretz. Maria's first - and for that matter second and third - reaction is she can't. She's Sigrid, she says, powerful, headstrong, free to make her own rules. She could never be the weak, trapped, aging Helena.

But Valentine, her assistant, says she must play Helena, that Helena is Sigrid 20 years on, shattered by the sudden realization of her age and loss of power. By playing Helena as an older Sigrid, says Valentine, Maria will recover the edge and innocence dulled by decades of empty love affairs, variable movies and acting against green screens in comic book blockbusters. In the actress's rented cottage in the breathtaking Swiss village of Sils Maria, Valentine fills Maria in on her young, perspective co-star.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA")

KRISTEN STEWART: (As Valentine) Jo-Ann Ellis's movie is opening up in Europe. She wants to meet you.

JULIETTE BINOCHE: (As Maria Enders) When?

STEWART: (As Valentine) Next week.

BINOCHE: (As Maria Enders) Where?

STEWART: (As Valentine) Wherever you want. She'll come here if you'd like.

BINOCHE: (As Maria Enders) Definitely not here.

STEWART: (As Valentine) Maybe I'll tell her to book the Waldhaus.

(SOUNDBITE OF POURING)

BINOCHE: (As Maria Enders) When is the movie opening?

STEWART: (As Valentine) It opened last week. Have you read a paper lately?

BINOCHE: (As Maria Enders) Oh, sorry, you want one?

STEWART: (As Valentine) It's playing in St. Moritz if you want to see it.

BINOCHE: (As Maria Enders) I'd rather wait until rehearsal's started, keep the image of Sigrid as my (inaudible) - I know, I know, it's disturbing. I found it more interesting.

STEWART: (As Valentine) I didn't know you at 18, but I'm almost positive Jo-Ann's a lot worse.

BINOCHE: (As Maria Enders) How can you be so sure?

STEWART: (As Valentine) Have you Googled her?

BINOCHE: (As Maria Enders) Well, I just looked at the pictures.

STEWART: (As Valentine) Well, you should dig a little deeper - won't take you long to find all the naked photos, the latest updates on her exploits.

EDELSTEIN: The first thing that hits you about "Clouds Of Sils Maria" is how deliciously meta it is. The characters in the play overlap with the characters in the film overlap with Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart and Chloe Grace Moretz. A big source of delight is watching Stewart, so famous in tabloids for her sullen, shlumpy affect, gulp coffee, field calls and run interference with the paparazzi while envisioning Stewart's own personal assistant doing the exact same thing. She is wonderful and unusually comfortable, ironically, by plumbing her own discomfort, using her squirmy, non-actressy presence to generate an amazing amount of sympathy.

Moretz arrives in the last 45 minutes and upstages everyone. Her Jo-Ann is just coming into her sexuality, a peak moment for an actress in this culture. The "All About Eve" side is strong and not just vis-a-vis the conflict on screen. Binoche is dwarfed on the international celebrity circuit by Stewart. But Stewart's era as a so-called franchise goddess ended with the last "Twilight" film. And now she's gazing on Moretz, the next generation's it girl.

Each actress is, in her own way, preternaturally high-strung, able to convey momentous emotional stakes without raising her voice. It's Binoche, though, who anchors "Clouds Of Sils Maria." Her Maria is in denial of her aging for much of the movie. But then, with such subtlety you can't see it happening, she transforms. She becomes more self-possessed, less a victim of time than a faintly amused bystander, feeling the first stirrings of something beyond the material world. In the end, you realize the director, Olivier Assayas, has used these ephemeral, gossip magazine ingredients - wealth, fashion, celebrity - as a springboard for that most timeless of themes - the ephemerality of us all.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. On the next FRESH AIR, we look back at a time in the 1970s when in one 18-month period, there were 2,500 bombings in the U.S. by radical underground groups. We talk with Brian Burrough about the Weathermen, the Black Liberation Army and others.

BRIAN BURROUGH: They believed a revolution was imminent and that violence would speed the change.

BIANCULLI: His new book is "Days Of Rage." Join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.