Try to draw a straight line—I sure can’t—from Olivier Assayas’ sexy film-set

Try to draw a straight line—I sure can’t—from Olivier Assayas’ sexy film-set shenanigans in Irma Vep (his 1996 breakthrough) to his Eurotrashy Boarding Gate to his exquisitely rendered family drama Summer Hours to his terror opus Carlos. His last film to play here, Something in the Air, ventured back to the tumult of 1968 France, while his newest settles uncertainly in the serene Swiss Alps. Like the clouds that garland the titular valley, this drama of three woman laboring in showbiz has an odd, evanescent quality: Now you see it, now you don’t. The edits are weird and abrupt: a silent sepia Bergfilme from the ’20s suddenly gives way to celebrity YouTube snippets on an iPad; important moments are omitted entirely.

The picture starts with film star Maria (Juliette Binoche) arriving in Zurich to pay tribute to the eminent old playwright who launched her career. Inconveniently, he kills himself, leaving Maria at loose ends until a rising stage director proposes a new adaptation of that signature project. But here’s the catch: Maria originally played the pert young seductress Sigrid; now she’s being offered the role of Helena, the tragic older woman. It’s not being put out to pasture, not yet, but the transition would clearly set Maria on that menopausal path. It’s a dilemma she discusses fitfully with her personal assistant, a very competent yet unformed young woman named Valentine (Kristen Stewart, excellent).

Their conversations wind along Alpine roads and hiking trails, continuing through cigarette smoke and too much late-night wine. Running lines for the play, the two drop in and out of those scenes to comment on the material. The line between art and life becomes increasingly blurred (sometimes frustrating the viewer). Even if Valentine is no professional threat to Maria, she chides her boss: “You can’t hang onto the privileges of youth.” (Meanwhile Maria tells her agent via Skype, “I want to stay Sigrid!”)

Youth is represented by the Lohanesque tabloid troublemaker cast as Sigrid: Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz, arriving steely and late), who fascinates Maria with her volatile TMZ meltdowns. The old celebrity firmament is gone; Maria’s notions of Continental stardom have been rudely disrupted by IMDb and Google (with Valentine her stoic mediator). No actress (or actor) can escape time, a notion reinforced by the ancient Swiss peaks and glaciers—plus regular passages from Handel and Pachelbel. Even if an ambitious young sci-fi director entices Maria with a role that will enable her to “to live outside of time,” Assayas offers her no such consolation. Though Clouds has a few welcome laughs (digs at vampire and comic-book movies, Binoche even doing a spit-take!), it’s a film about time and a woman’s passages through time. Each age forces a different role—Sigrid or Helena—despite her wishes. Of the modern audience, Jo-Ann explains to Maria, “It’s time to move on. They want what comes next.” In other words, her.

CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA Opens Fri., May 1 at Seven Gables. Rated R. 123 minutes.

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