Clouds of Sils Maria: Binoche and Stewart shine

She stares out the window, from her seat on a train, reflecting the weight of her life in every glance. Professionally she is accomplished and recognized; personally her days are filled with curiosity about choices made and opportunities avoided. Perhaps she could drift endlessly in her ambiguity. But a profound change will force her to confront the realities of her life.

Like a novel that slowly reveals its narrative, Clouds of Sils Maria captivates us with the layering of its story. On the surface this is a simple tale of a famous actress who travels to visit her mentor, a respected director who created some of her most famous roles, and provide a tribute at a ceremony in his honor. But, when he dies as she travels, she begins to examine what it would take to restore balance to a life out of control.

Such a character study could, in less caring hands, emerge as plotless and repetitive, interesting but self-absorbed. But with the grand Juliette Binoche as the actress, and the sublime Kristin Stewart as her multi-tasking personal assistant, Clouds challenges us to consider what it takes to remain authentic in an increasingly artificial world. While Binoche, representing an older generation, strives to simplify her hectic life, Stewart relishes how technology enables her to work, malign and strategize at the same time. And while they may share cynical views of people’s intentions, they start each day with different expectations and fears. This complex story of a woman facing the realities of age, career and relationships gives Binoche the chance to deliver what may be the performance of her career while Stewart reveals more than her previous screen work has permitted.

In one delicate sequence after another, writer/director Olivier Assayas creates a dynamic between these characters reminiscent of the classics All About Eve and The Women. His opening sequence  on the train  tells us everything we need to know about these characters. Binoche is soulful, curious and careful, while Stewart is focused, impatient and resolute. While Binoche wishes to consider options, Stewart wants closure. As Binoche brings patience to her emotions, Stewart calculates the least amount of energy needed to resolve an issue. With each exchange, Assayas and his actresses reveal that, while people may want to think of themselves as fair, judgment can become a recreational sport.

Binoche invests the role with a depth of technique she brings to every film. The actress accomplishes so much with her eyes, reveals such rich emotion with a casual observation, tells so much with each expression. And Stewart, who captured audiences in Twilight and provided strong support to Julianne Moore in Still Alice, demonstrates a range of artistic curiosity that proves her capable of carrying a film. In each scene, she makes us want to learn more about a young woman who can be giving at the same time she remains absorbed in the details of her life.

With Clouds, director Assayas advances his reputation as a filmmaker with a capacity to capture the small moments that define relationships. With Binoche and Stewart bringing his vision to life, he delivers a riveting character study that captures our imaginations from its first moments. We love spending time with these women.

Film Nutritional Value

Clouds of Sils Maria

Content: High. Writer/director Olivier Assayas explores the emotional dynamics that define two women at different points in their ambitions, disappointments and hopes.

Entertainment: High. Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart offer indelible performances as women trying to find balance in their lives.

Message: High. With tasteful restraint, Assayas questions how people can find authenticity in lives defined by technology, celebrity and media intrusion.

Relevance: High. Anyone who savors strong, clear movie making, with two actresses delivering pitch-perfect performances, will find this a welcome entertainment.

Opportunity for Dialogue: High. You and your older teenagers should find a lot to discuss as you consider the choices these women make.

(Clouds of Sils Maria is rated R for “language and brief graphic nudity.” The film runs 124 minutes.)

4-1/2 Popcorn Buckets

Behind the Screen: Reel Moments With Juliette Binoche

She was made for the camera. With her warm features, piercing eyes, striking voice and authentic manner, she opens her soul before the lens and, with her process, creates a marvelous gallery of memorable characters.

In the 19 years since she burst on the screen as Hana in The English Patient and upset Lauren Bacall to win the Oscar as Best Supporting Actress – Juliette Binoche has built a striking career filled with fascinating performances. Without “selling out” to commercial enterprises, or letting herself get lost in a series of bad choices, the actress continues to push herself. And, as she beautifully demonstrates in Clouds of Sils Maria, she simply gets better with time.

Shortly after winning her Oscar, Binoche returned to Academy Award contention in 2000 for her leading role in Chocolat, a fantasy about a lady who brings magic candy to a small village in France. As a free spirit who transcends local gossip, Binoche makes sense out of this Lasse Hallstrom concoction with a performance that radiates sincerity even when its situations exaggerate. The warmth of her presence brings life to a movie that, with someone else in the role, could have fallen flat.

Binoche pursues a darker side of her craft in the French film, The Flight of the Red Balloon, in 2007. As a puppeteer who works too hard, worries too much and trusts too little, Binoche wants the best for her seven-year-old son but refuses to open her world to many who can support her journey. By limiting her world – within an inviting community inside a most engaging Paris – Binoche restricts what her son can experience. The film depicts how this curious boy learns to explore what his world can be as it examines the distracting frazzle that his mother embraces. Binoche is raw, rude and real in a performance that is spontaneous in its presentation and frightening in its layers.

The actress becomes part of an ensemble in Summer Hours, a 2008 tribute to family dynamics created by Olivier Assayas, the writer/director of Clouds of Sils Maria. As the siblings and inlaws debate the future of the family home – after the death of the family matriarch – they explore what being a part of this collective actually means. As the film avoids any touch of sentimentality in its narrative, Binoche delivers a performance of razor sharp clarity as an ambitious woman who refuses to let what she feels get in the way of what she must do. When compared to her other performances, this one stands out because she does so much with minimal screen time. She gets few big lines, and no big scenes, yet sets the rhythm for the film.

In 2010, Binoche explores another side of her craft as a woman trying to balance fantasy and reality in Certified Copy. In this study of complex relationships, Binoche’s portrayal works on two levels, as a woman so captivated by romance that she can’t see straight, at the same time she sees weakness in a man she wishes she coult trust. This ambiguity gives Binoche a great deal of range to play in a performance that delicately asks as many questions about the character as it provides answers. Filmmaker Abbas Kiatostami inspires Binoche to make the uncertainty a fundamental part of another magical portrayal.

And in Elles, from 2011, Binoche adds to her gallery of fascinating women with an insightful look into the heart and mind of a woman trying to come to terms with the disappointments in her life. From her first moments on screen, Binoche creates a complete view of a married woman whose husbands disconnects, a mother whose children disengage, and a professional whose work as a writer provides her only window into a world she would love to embrace. As this woman experiences emptiness in her life, she relies on her observations of others to answer her questions and fill her days. As with the best of her work, Binoche fills in every layer of this woman’s soul with respect and understanding, and makes us want to know more.

No matter what she plays, even a cameo in the blockbuster Godzilla, Binoche is never less than fresh, original and daring. Fortunately, her work in French film gives her the chance to continually stretch. Each performance becomes a work of art; each character the product of an actor’s strong instinct and marvelous eye for rich material. And we are the lucky ones who get to savor the result.

Yes, that’s what’s happening at the movies.