Alpine setting lifts backstage drama

Quality screenplays written with particular actors in mind are relatively rare. Yet that appears to be the case with Clouds of Sils Maria (Pinnacle Films), which is due for wider release after the completion of its season in the New Zealand International Film Festival.

Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart star in the movie Clouds of Sils Maria.

Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart star in the movie Clouds of Sils Maria.

In 1985, Frenchman Olivier Assayas wrote a film called Rendezvous (directed by André Téchiné) about a young provincial woman going to Paris to pursue her acting career.
That woman was played by Juliette Binoche, now 51, and one of France’s biggest contributions to world cinema
(her recent lead roles include A Thousand Times Good Night and Camille Claudel 1915).
She is perhaps best known for her English-speaking parts as the nurse in The English Patient (1996) and as Cathy
in the 1992 adaptation of Wuthering Heights.
In Clouds of Sils Maria, written and directed by Assayas (Summer Hours, Carlos), she plays a famous actress
who, 30 years earlier, played the ingénue role in a successful stage play by a famous playwright.
Now it is to be remade with a precocious Hollywood starlet (played by Chloe Grace Moretz of Kick-Ass fame) in the role that originally made Binoche famous. Moretz’s appearance is relatively brief and it is modelled on Hollywood “bad girl” Lindsay Lohan.
But the substance of the film is Binoche’s relationship with her personal assistant, played by another Hollywood star Kristen Stewart, of the Twilight series.
They are travelling to Zurich to celebrate an honour for the playwright, but he dies before the ceremony.
Despite her misgivings, Binoche is persuaded to take the part and the pair retreat to the dramatist’s alpine chalet
where they rehearse the play’s lines.
Here the real-life and make-believe Binoches merge as she sees the parallels in her own life, contemplates the
end of her career and is forced to share the limelight with a much younger actress.
Binoche was not so much cast in the role as had the part written around her. There’s also a parallel with Birdman,
the Oscar-winning film from last year. But Clouds is much better if you appreciate behind-the-scenes dramas.
Another parallel is David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, a far more acerbic examination into generational
envy and professional insecurities. In that film Julianne Moore plays the ageing female star in a similar scenario.
Whether they are rehearsing or being their “real” characters, Binoche and Stewart make a compelling duo and tease out the tension of power and abuse. (Stewart has demonstrated she is better than her Twilight appearances as Julianne Moore’s daughter in Still Alice.)
The superb acting is compounded by magnificent mountain scenery, set in the real Sils Maria valley, which is famous
for its “Maloya snake” — a cloud formation that slowly winds its way up deep valleys and is also shown in some historic footage from the 1920s.
An ambiguous plot twist at the end remains unexplained but fails to detract from what has gone before.
It may even make a second viewing worthwhile.
Rating: Mature audiences (offensive language); 118 minutes.

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Michael Otto

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