Esoteric and, despite having the Swiss Alps as a backdrop, stage bound, “Clouds of Sils Maria” has too much talk and too little soul. Filled with arguments about acting and the interpretation of text, this drama is an academic treatise with movie stars.
The story centers upon a trio of characters played by Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz. Binoche takes the lead as Maria Enders, an acclaimed French film and stage actress who’s wrestling with middle age. Stewart co-stars as Maria’s dedicated American assistant, Valentine.
The good relationship Maria and Valentine share begins unraveling after Wilhelm Melchior, the author of one of Maria’s most important credits, a play and film called “Maloja Snake,” suddenly dies. Maria and Valentine hear the news while they’re on their way to Zurich, where the actress is scheduled to accept an honor for the intentionally absent writer.
Concurrently with Melchior’s unexpected demise, a young director courts Maria for the role of Helena in a revival of “Maloja Snake.” Twenty years before she played Sigrid in the play, the young woman with whom the older Helena falls in love.
Maria accepts the role but then tries to extract herself from it. The role troubles Maria. The actress ridicules the play’s dialogue and its Helena character, even though they were written by her late mentor.
“I don’t know why I want to inflict this on myself!” Maria protests to Valentine.
“You don’t have to take it out on me,” Valentine says.
Maria and Valentine are the only characters on screen during much of “Clouds of Sils Maria.” They have an extended stay at Melchior’s home in the Alps. The writer’s earnest widow, Rosa (Angela Winkler), gives them her blessing and goes away.
Binoche’s Maria seems to be two women. First she’s the beautiful, confident, renowned actress. But after Maria agrees to play Helena in “Maloja Snake,” the actress loses herself as she and her Helena role intertwine. During emotional episodes, Maria’s professionalism and objectivity evaporate. And her appearance shifts into a someone nearly unrecognizable from the previous, glamorous Maria.
Stewart’s Valentine stays professional, enduring the new Maria despite her own increasing irritation. The “Twilight” star’s performance as Valentine won France’s César Award, a first for an American performer. It’s a solid performance by Stewart, but American audiences who happen to see “Clouds of Sils Maria” probably will wonder why it’s award worthy.
As Valentine helps her employer rehearse, writer-director Olivier Assayas transparently blurs the lines between the play and reality. The film’s parallels between life and art suggest another academic exercise, removed from life itself. “Clouds of Sils Maria” is film as theory.
The entry of Moretz as a paparazzi-pursued, Lindsay Lohan-ish American actress brings some life to the film. Moretz’s character, Jo-Ann Ellis, blasts into Maria’s and Valentine’s lives, bringing paparazzi-baiting drama with her. But the character isn’t quite satirical or real enough to rise to Lohan’s and Stewart’s real-life misadventures and scandals.
In “Clouds of Sils Maria,” fading to black as well as willful storytelling gaps become speed bump mannerisms. It’s also difficult to stay with a story in which the protagonist is so self-absorbed, and the story is too detached and unfathomable to make time spent with it anything but a chore.