As Alejandro Inarritu’s Oscar-winning Birdman most recently illustrated, filmmakers never tire of the navel-gazing involved in explorations of acting, aging, and celebrity. French director Olivier Assayas takes on the task in his latest film, Clouds of Sils Maria, playing this weekend at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center.
Juliette Binoche, celebrated for her roles in movies including The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Chocolat, plays Maria Enders, a fortysomething actress who reluctantly decides to play the older woman in a revival of Maloja Snake, an ill-fated lesbian romance that launched her career some 20 years earlier when she played Sigrid, the fickle younger woman. The title of the play is inspired by a dramatic cloud formation in the Swiss Alps that winds through the mountain valleys like a serpent.
The viewer meets Maria as she travels by train to Zurich with her personal assistant, Valentine, played compellingly by Twilight saga actress Kristen Stewart. Ms. Stewart won a French César as supporting actress for her role, the first American actress to receive a César. Valentine juggles movie offers, paparazzi, and other aspects of Maria’s life, while Maria prepares to accept an award for Klaus, the reclusive theatrical director who cast her in the first Maloja Snake.
While en route, Valentine and Maria learn that Klaus has committed suicide. Once the two arrive in Zurich, Maria discovers to her dismay that Henryk (Hanns Zischler), an actor with whom she had an unhappy affair during the run of the original Maloja Snake, has also been invited to accept the prize for Klaus. She meets with Christopher (Johnny Flynn), the British director who plans to revive Maloja Snake on the London stage, and wants Maria to play Helena, the older woman, in the play.
While it may seem as if a lot is happening in Clouds of Sils Maria, Maria’s conversations with Valentine are what really make up the bulk of the movie. Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz), the up-and-coming and volatile starlet being tapped for Sigrid in the London production, also plays an important role.
Maria and Valentine are invited to stay at Klaus’s home in the Alps by his widow, Maria’s close friend Rosa (Angela Winkler). The actress and her assistant take frequent walks in the breathtakingly beautiful alpine meadows where Klaus committed suicide.
In addition to their hikes, Maria and Valentine spend much of their time rehearsing for the new production of Maloja Snake. They take time to watch Jo-Ann’s blockbuster sci-fi film, which Valentine likes and Maria dismisses as shallow pop-culture junk. As suspicious and potentially jealous of Jo-Ann as Maria may be, she discovers the starlet is very different from the way she is portrayed by the media.
Often it is hard to tell whether Maria’s and Valentine’s relationship parallels the roles the two are rehearsing. The mix-up of real and imaginary lives can be dizzying, but the powerful performances of Ms. Binoche and Ms. Stewart will keep the viewer engaged.
Clouds of Sils Maria, Friday, May 15, and Saturday, May 16, at 4 pm, Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, Tisbury Marketplace, Vineyard Haven. For tickets and information on all films playing at the Film Center, visit mvfilmsociety.com.