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Clouds of Sils Maria

I realize that I’m not supposed to feel this way, but I’m not completely sold on Kristen Stewart’s performance as Valentine, in Olivier Assayas’s latest, “Clouds of Sils Maria”. After all, Ms. Stewart, after years of “Twilight” malaise, became the critics’ darling once again with this role, receiving almost unanimous praise, and even garnering a Cesar Award (considered the French equivalent of an Academy Award) as Best Supporting Actress for her work. Now, I’m not espousing that Kristen is untalented. In fact, I was quite taken with her acting abilities in 2007’s “Into the Wild”, 2009’s “Adventureland”, and 2010’s “The Runaways”. So, I know she’s got the goods–we just haven’t seen much of them lately. And, personally, I found her to be working too hard here. Possibly, I need a 2nd look to ease my reservations.

There are no such complaints regarding the luminous Juliette Binoche, however. Ever-alluring, and fabulous at 50, I’ve admired Ms. Binoche for decades, and I was even lucky enough to see her grace the Broadway stage about 15 years ago, in Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal”. I almost certainly overuse the word gravitas, but to Juliette it does apply. She’s evolved into an absolutely marvelous performer since I first became acutely aware of her, in 1988’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”. And I’m so impressed by Chloe Grace Moretz too. Chloe has the most difficult and unwieldy role of the trio, as rising mega-star Jo-Ann, but she nails it. I knew the promise of 2010’s “Kick-Ass” was no fluke. Mr. Assayas orchestrates a tricky screenplay here, but an intelligent one. The film might seem clunky occasionally, but Olivier’s direction delivers.

Maria Enders (Ms. Binoche) is an aging international star of stage and screen, who is being asked to play the more mature role, in a remake of something she starred in twenty years earlier–as the ingenue. It was the role that made Ms. Enders famous, but she’s torn now, as to whether or not she should appear in the updated version. The sudden suicide of the elderly author of the work, only makes her decision more difficult. But when youthful prodigy Jo-Ann Ellis (Ms. Moretz), practically begs her to do it, Maria eventually acquiesces. However, we witness Ms. Enders’ consistent uncertainty, as she discusses the project frequently with her assistant Valentine (Ms. Stewart), as well as researching the role with her, as they spend time at Maria’s getaway cottage, and hike in the French Alps.

Along with the praise. the character played by Ms. Stewart has been much discussed–and you may want to skip the next line, or two, to avoid a spoiler. Is Valentine real, or imagined? It’s an intriguing question, especially upon the occasion of Valentine’s “disappearance”, and I certainly refuse to hazard a definitive answer. But the overall effect of this provocative, character study, is intoxicating–and even melancholy. It practically demands repeat viewing, and you won’t exactly have to twist my arm to experience Ms. Binoche walking this emotional tightrope once more. Olivier Assayas is a gifted artist, and his 2009 “Summer Hours” was one of my favorite films of its year. So, I expect the “Clouds of Sils Maria” to roll in on me again soon. Maybe even Ms. Stewart will grow on me by then.

Grade:  B+

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