Clouds of Sils Maria - film review

We never know what to expect from French filmmaker Olivier Assayas. Art thriller (Irma Vep)? Drug drama (Clean)? Epoch-hopping politics pageant (Something in the Air)? Dig deep, though, and a thematic root system becomes clear. Human beings change completely while staying almost completely the same: that's the great all-connecting Assayas conundrum.

Clouds of Sils Maria puts a mix-and-shake cast (Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloe Grace Moretz) through a wryly winning meditation on transience and stasis. Binoche plays the fortysomething actress coaxed to play the older role in a late-deceased playwright's revived chamber drama: the very play that 20 years before made her, in the younger role, a star. Clamorously conflicted she now spills her anguish - a tragic diva before her time, banished from youth? - in the echoing Alps where she vacations/rehearses with assistant Kristen Stewart.

The specs-wearing Twilightstar shares the existential wrangling. Then along comes Moretz as Binoche's play partner - a Hollywood moppet-brat come of age in popcorn action fantasies - and the film amplifies into a seriocomical three-hander. Sundered generations reach across culture's time-space continuum to high-five with the only thing they share: a mutually magnetised incomprehension.

It's a wise, funny, slyly questioning piece somewhere between The Master Builder and All About Eve. Not to their eminence, maybe; but they in turn didn't boast the gadabout geography (Swiss mountains to Soho theatreland), climatological symbolism - the play is called Majola Snake after a rare cloud formation that also manifests itself, epiphanically, to the film's characters - and greatness-touching Gallic acting. Binoche proves, if we hadn't guessed before, that the grand style is as much in her grasp as the miniaturist mastery we already know.

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