Oliver Assayas's new film, Clouds of Sils Maria, is visually stunning but thematically overwrought. The performances by Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart are both outstanding. The many scenes of opulence--hotels offering live chamber music, the Casino at St. Moritz--are in keeping with the social milieu of the main characters. The conceit that drives the action is somewhat contrived, but not embarrassingly so.
Binoche plays Marie Enders, a world-famous star of the screen and stage (hence the opulence). Stewart plays Valentine, her significantly younger personal assistant. Binoche's big break came when she was younger than Stewart; she played a young seductress of a powerful older woman in the play Maloja Snake. (The Maloja Snake is a breathtaking cloud formation, only viewable from near the Swiss town of Sils Maria.) Now Binoche has been cast to play the older woman in the same play, and Chloë Grace Moretz (Jo-Ann Ellis) will play the role once played by Binoche.
Line readings commence, reluctantly. Marie had to be talked into taking this role as the older woman, and it's quickly apparent that she should have left that part of her career alone. Marie discusses how to get out of it with her attorney, but the contract's already been signed. Exiting now would be very expensive even for someone who gambles in St. Moritz.
And so the line readings continue, in preparation for official rehearsals. Marie plays the older woman, Valentine the younger woman once played by Marie. Thus the inevitable role confusion--is Valentine her personal assistant or Marie's longed for lover?--begins. This is handled with subtlety, not with the clanking obviousness of many pictures (an ill that Assayas effectively satirizes in one of the subplots of his own film). But nonetheless there is a touch of the obvious, an air of contrivance, in this dynamic. Clouds is definitely worth watching regardless--but it is good, not great.