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Binoche At Her Very Best In 'Clouds Of Sils Maria'

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 17, 2015 7:40PM

Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart in “Clouds of Sils Maria” (photo: IFC Films).

Juliette Binoche is 51 now. If she had focused mainly on Hollywood films—as she could have after making her mark as a luminous young star in English-language films like The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Damage, and certainly after winning an Oscar for The English Patient—it's possible her career would have hit a familiar wall. Meryl Streep and a few other exceptions aside, the American film industry has a cruel tendency to push actresses over 45 to the margins.

Fortunately, Binoche has continued to work regularly in her native France and around the globe in addition to periodic American stops, mainly choosing work with strong directors over obvious star vehicles. The result is a career you can put up against that of any actress of the last 30 years. The Lovers on the Bridge, Three Colors: Blue, Code Unknown, Cache, Certified's an impressive resume.

Binoche reaffirms her status as one of the best actresses working today in Clouds of Sils Maria, in which, significantly, she plays a famous French actress uncomfortably navigating middle age. The film (which is mainly in English) reportedly was sparked when she asked writer-director Olivier Assayas (Something in the Air, Irma Vep) to write a deep, complicated female role and Assayas responded by scripting a part largely informed by his work with her on three previous films (as a screenwriter and/or director). So despite how well Binoche has seemed to steer clear of the pitfalls women face in a youth-obsessed profession, it seems actress and character do somewhat mirror each other here.

The anxiety of aging affects Maria Enders (Binoche) particularly when she is approached by a hot young director to appear in the revival of a stage play in which she first caught the public's eye. The catch is that when she first appeared in the play, her role was that of the young beauty who threatens to take the place of an older woman. Now, she is asked to play the older woman, while a rising starlet (Chloƫ Grace Moretz) will play the role that made her famous.

Maria's doubts about the project and her professional status are mainly worked out in long, increasingly intense discussions and debates with her personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart). Valentine, whom Maria is very much dependent upon, seems to have her employer's best interests at heart, but the generational divide between them stirs up conflict and jealousies as well.

The revered German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) has been mentioned as a primary influence on Clouds of Sils Maria. Fassbinder's early films blurred stage and screen methods, and there are times when Assayas' dialogue-heavy drama seems like it might have worked better as a play. But there is considerable visual force to the film and certainly scenic beauty when the story moves to the Swiss Alps, where a mesmerizing natural phenomenon of a snake-like mist that moves through a mountain pass becomes a key metaphor.

First and foremost, though, this is a character study and mainly a damned good one. Moretz, playing a character not unlike Lindsay Lohan before her career imploded, is given the least to work with. Still in her teens, Moretz hasn't quite developed the chops to pull this part off, but her role is mainly a triggering device for the tension between Maria and Valentine, so her superficial rendering of the character isn't much of a detriment.

Stewart is better, though some of the rave reviews she has received for her work here suggests what I like to call the "Justin Timberlake Curve.” That curve is somewhat excessive praise for a talented performer who moves on from cheesy past work. For JT it was 'NSYNC, for Stewart it is the Twilight franchise. I tend to like understated actors and I think Stewart has given good performances in the past, especially in The Runaways and Adventureland. But she just doesn't have the screen presence to hold her own in her many pivotal, one-on-one scenes with Binoche. Perhaps because of her recent role as another personal assistant to a celebrity in Maps to the Stars, Mia Wasikowska comes to mind as a more emotive actress who might have succeeded more fully in this part.

But Stewart by no means brings the movie down, and it's no shame to fade into the background a bit when you're sharing scenes with Binoche in peak form. Binoche appears fashion magazine glamorous in one scene and completely unadorned by any evident makeup in the next, but the strength of her performance goes far beyond her willingness to shove vanity to the side.

Every nervous laugh, frustrated glance or subtle expression of growing resentment and desperation seems to come from a deep place for Binoche. Assayas may have gifted her with a tailor-made and deeply personal part, but this is the kind of rare acting that makes the writing seem to vanish from any authorial intent and live fully within the performance.

Clouds of Sils Maria. Written and directed by Olivier Assayas. Starring Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart and Chloƫ Grace Moretz. 123 mins. Rated R.

Opens Friday, April 17 at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema in Chicago and Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park. For more theater locations of where this film is playing in your area, visit here.