As we dive headfirst into the noisy summer-movie season with the May 1 opening of Avengers: Age of Ultron, leave it to heady, naturalistic French director Olivier Assayas to counter the carnage with Clouds of Sils Maria, possibly the season's—even the year's—most stunning, complex film.
While the title refers to the scenic Swiss locale where most of the movie takes place, there is a Maria here, an aging actress played with complicated cool by Juliette Binoche. Maria spends every moment aware of her dwindling cinematic shelf-life (she has fled a lucrative role in X-Men movies), trying to be both a valuable commodity and a human being. Before attending a tribute for the man who launched her career by casting her as a manipulative young lesbian seductress in his play, she learns of his suicide.
With his widow's blessing, she retreats to his Sils Maria home and prepares to take on the older role—the vulnerable middle-aged woman who is smitten with the girl—in a London revival of the play. With her is loyal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart), who hips her to the scandalous doings of the bratty young star (Chloë Grace Moretz, gamely playing an amalgam of dizzy starlets—including Stewart) who will occupy the role that made her famous.
Clouds is a riveting character study of Binoche's proud but fading movie star and Stewart's wise-beyond-her-years underling. Binoche, radiant with cropped hair and no makeup, and Stewart, displaying the sort of independent wit and intelligence she couldn't while pining for heartthrob monsters, are an endlessly fascinating pair, whether they're just gabbing or locked in a passive-aggressive tug-of-war. Running lines from the play, almost saying things they want to say to each other, but can't, they create a tricky, thorny bond that's also a microcosm for civilization's eternal battles: youth versus experience, beauty versus wisdom and the past versus the future.
Ever the deceptive neo-realist, Assayas rounds out a superficially simple, visually resplendent story with a third-act twist that leaves you wondering if one character's struggles are more internal than she lets on. But the movie speaks multitudes the more you think about it.
Like most of Assayas' films, Clouds shows us how difficult it is to retain some semblance of who we are, where we've been and what we've accomplished when others are more concerned with what the hell is going to happen tomorrow. Time and tide, as the saying goes, wait for no woman.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Heady in the Clouds."