In Clouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas' sensational drama, past and present collide around the unstable haze of one woman's identity. Juliette Binoche plays a middle-aged but well-reputed actress, Maria Enders, who rejects the idea that aging must mean declining. By her side is Valentine (Kristen Stewart), her skillful, inquisitive, and, above all, dedicated assistant. When an unexpected death leads Maria right back to the play that first made her famous 20 years earlier, Val must help Maria utilize her experience to accept her circumstance.
Kristen Stewart plays Valentine with a kind of quiet assurance and deep-seated allure that allows her to stand her own alongside the always-brilliant Binoche. She's so good that I'd challenge any naysayer to watch Clouds of Sils Maria and still continue dismissing Stewart as an actress. This is, without a doubt, the best performance she has ever exhibited, and I now understand why she was the first American actress ever to win a Cesar Award, the French equivalent of an Oscar.
Another American actress, Chloe Grace Moretz, plays a young newcomer with an impressive amount of early success, who will be acting alongside Maria in the fictional play Maloja Snake. This character, a volatile combination of self-absorbed and absorbing, represents a foreign but familiar world to Maria. As the older actress sinks into character while learning her lines with Val, she must deal with the onslaught of youthful replacement.
The woman-centered film is a marvel of emotion, but there is also a pattern of withholding in The Clouds of Sils Maria. The narrative features multiple build-ups that could easily—surely—lead to a moment of eruption or catharsis, but they are more often than not suppressed. In some kind of roundabout way, losing that shock and the subsequent appeasement (the gasp and sigh of relief) turns out to be the most surprising thing of all. The movie may not give you what you think you want, but it proclaims exactly what it needs to say.
Dramatic, stirring, and mesmerizingly honest, Clouds of Sils Maria offers a glimpse into the heart of performance, and it never settles for a glamorous facade.