Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria

Olivier Assayas' "Clouds of Sils Maria" is the best, richest, most intellectually stimulating film so far this year, with thrillingly alive performances by the indispensable Juliette Binoche as a legendary actress named Maria Enders and Kristen Stewart as Maria's personal assistant, Valentine (pronounced Valen-teen). Here's a smart person's entertainment that leaves you with a great deal to think and talk about after the lights go up.

Maria arrived on the scene twenty years ago in Wilhelm Melchior's play "Malajo Snake," named for the cloud formation that slithers through a pass in the Swiss Alps where the film is set. She portrayed Sigrid, a young temptress who stirs taboo longings in her boss, Helena, eventually driving the older woman to suicide. Maria has since become an international star, even landing a lucrative role ("Nemesis") in a budget-busting Hollywood franchise. As "Clouds" opens, Maria returns to Switzerland to present Wilhelm a lifetime achievement award, but he passes away the day of her arrival.

Henryk Wald (Hanns Zischler), a long-ago co-star with whom Maria had a brief affair and now enjoys a frosty relationship, also attends Wilhelm's ceremony, which after some discussion the organizers choose not to cancel. Henryk volunteers to make the presentation himself, which Maria refuses to allow. Meanwhile, Valentine urges Maria to consider hot director Klaus Diesterweg's (Lars Eidinger) offer to play Helena in his new West End restaging of "Malajo Snake," a proposal that troubles Maria on a number of levels, including the casting of tabloid sensation Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz) as Sigrid.

A nasty divorce, though, has left Maria in need of quick cash, and she reluctantly accepts Klaus' logic that "only you, having been Sigrid, can be Helena." We spend much of "Clouds" with Maria and Valentine running lines in Maria's hotel suite and, later, Wilhelm's chalet, where his widow (Angela Winkler) is delighted for them to stay. As they hike the mountainous terrain - captured breathtakingly by cinematographer Yorick Le Saux - and delve into Wilhelm's text, questioning the nature and motivations of the characters, we feel fully engaged. It goes without saying that Maria and Valentine's own relationship both reflects and refracts that of Sigrid and Helena.

On a film set in the entertainment industry, the devil is in the details, and here Assayas and Binoche lift "Clouds of Sils Maria" into rarefied air. Every aspect of Maria's treatment - by Valentine, by hotel and event staff - rings true. When Maria Googles images of Jo-Ann Ellis, an iPad screen's worth of pictures and several realistic videos come up. Binoche - whose version of the saying about artistic versus commercial roles might be "five for me, one for them" - brings a lifetime's worth of insider knowledge to Maria, to say nothing of her fierce intelligence, patented sophistication and charm. Stewart shows true promise here, largely holding her own with Binoche through wide swaths of the two-hour runtime.

For the filmgoer starved for intelligent entertainment, "Clouds of Sils Maria" arrives like manna from heaven, brimming with insight and thematic richness. Don't miss it.

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