The head of the association of theater owners recently predicted “2015 will rock at the box office because it will be the year of women.”
That is likely an exaggeration, but it is bolstered by “Clouds of Sils Maria,” starring Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart and Chloe Grace Moretz. The movie was nominated for six Cesar Awards, France’s version of the Oscar, and the “Twilight” star became the first American to win an acting award (for her supporting role) from the French Academy.
Set largely against the backdrop of the Swiss Alps in summertime, it’s filled with rich, sly observations about actresses, aging, desire, a youth-obsessed culture and industry, and a love-hate relationship with the Internet and modern media.
Binoche, an Oscar winner for “The English Patient” who just turned 51 in real life, portrays actress Maria Enders. She is in the middle of a contentious divorce — her husband’s attorney comes up on her phone as “Creep’s Lawyer” — and headed to Zurich to accept a prize on behalf of a reclusive playwright and friend who wrote a seminal work that helped to launch her career decades earlier.
She gets word that he has died before arriving at the event where she also encounters a persistent director who wants her for a stage revival of the play that paved the way for her success. But instead of being recast as the teenager, she is being courted for the 40-year-old who falls for the younger, manipulative woman and is driven to suicide.
As Maria vacillates about the role and all it implies and portends, her personal assistant, Valentine (Stewart), helps the star navigate her way through other offers or overtures, unfounded rumors, details concerning the divorce and the sort of TMZ-fed gossip the older woman needs to know. Valentine is armed with a BlackBerry in one pocket and an iPhone in the other and the ability to explain why Maria’s possible co-star, 19-year-old actress Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz), is a scandal and paparazzi magnet although a talented one.
Writer-director Olivier Assayas makes scenic, symbolic use of the Maloja “snake,” a phenomena in which dense clouds form and slither and spill through the mountains. It’s a wondrous sight that complements the acting of the leads, with Binoche undergoing a physical transformation in preparation for the play, Stewart more natural and less mannered than she’s been in ages as the occasionally impatient gatekeeper to the star, and Moretz, a credible accomplished performer with a hot mess of a personal life.
In addition, there is the more toxic version of an “All About Eve” relationship between the older actress and the arrogant starlet, who cannot imagine what Maria’s role reversal feels like. In frustrating fashion, a major thread is left dangling, but groundwork is laid for the dramatic turn.
Maria’s disdain for effects-driven movies could not be timelier given the arrival of surefire summer blockbusters. “I’m sick of acting hanging from wires in front of green screens,” she tells her assistant. “I’ve outgrown it.” Or they have left her behind as she peers into the looking glass and sees herself as both ingenue and middle-aged woman and watches the images overlap and blend in bewildering fashion.