'Clouds of Sils Maria' review: Kristen Stewart impresses in probing drama

'Clouds of Sils Maria' review: Kristen Stewart impresses in probing drama

 "Clouds of Sils Maria" (Photo courtesy of IFC Films, used with permission.)

"Clouds of Sils Maria" (Photo courtesy of IFC Films, used with permission.)

Superbly acted and rich with subtext, "Clouds of Sils Maria" (expanding into theaters nationwide May 1) is a melancholic existential crisis and a cynical meta-take on the nature of celebrity anchored by a pair of stellar performances.

In short: Successful movie actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) became famous many years earlier, when she played the younger role in a play focused on the volatile relationship between a young office assistant and her more mature female boss. Nearly twenty years later, Maria is asked to return to the play that made her famous - but this time, playing the older female boss. Maria's devoted personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) helps Maria prepare for the challenge, this time acting alongside a young rising actress Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz). (Watch the trailer)

The easy "why this movie is incredible" answer is in the inherent drama of witnessing an established actress confront her career, the nature of aging (especially as a celebrity) and watching her reinterpret the play that made her famous from an entirely new point of view. If "Sils Maria" had only this one angle of storytelling, this movie would already be a multi-layered examination of a single character's retrospective take on a career and her new place in the realm of acting. But this ambitious drama strives for more depth and achieves it by developing a wonderful dynamic between Maria and Valentine, as well as incorporating a multi-faceted rival actress in Jo-Ann.

The key to the "Sils Maria" is the crackling interplay between Maria and Valentine - a pair who are rarely apart during much of the film's entire running time. Valentine is not merely a "gofer" of an assistant -- she is absolutely integral to maintaining Maria's daily life. She acts as a buffer between industry contacts who want Maria for their next project and she is the one who has to monitor Maria's personal affairs, such as her contentious divorce and delivering Maria the news when an old friend dies. But the intimacy of these duties only validate Valentine's impassioned exchanges as she prepares Maria for her role. The result is Valentine's acute challenge to Maria's perspectives at every turn.

The Maria-Valentine dynamic works because of the Binoche and Stewart chemistry. Stewart is totally at ease in her role as the devoted assistant - her relaxed, nuanced performance impresses because she doesn't seem to be "acting" at all ... which is the best type of "acting." Binoche's intensity and emotional turmoil drives the drama - and it's beautifully contrasted by Stewart's more measured and impartial perspective. Together, they discuss, analyze and debate Maria's career and the differences between Maria's two roles in the play - once playing the young temptress and now playing the older manager.

These discussions add an exciting new layer to "Sils Maria" - one that is rich in subtext. As Maria and Stewart read lines together from the play, they are actively picking apart the character dynamics of the play -- but the dialogue is richly multi-layered. Dialogue from the play perfectly reflects Maria's conflict in playing her new role, while doubling as an intriguing examination of the relationship between Maria and Valentine.

The only reason "Sils Maria" is a four-star film instead of a five-star knockout: this character-driven movie does its fair share of meandering. There are plenty of odd little moments that are good, but editing down this two-hour drama -- removing some of the bits that trail off from time to time -- would have focused "Sils Maria" into a more disciplined character drama. These asides are distracting and numerous enough to consider some of them self-indulgent. At times, the script is obviously taking detours to make some personal, borderline self-righteous, points that do not serve the narrative.

Final verdict: "Sils Maria" is a compelling character piece that takes effective and thoughtful shots at celebrity and storytelling. This is an actor's movie that should be on the must-see list for anyone who appreciates strong performances.

Score: 4/5

"Clouds of Sils Maria" is currently in select cities, expands to theaters nationwide May 1 and is rated R for language and brief graphic nudity.

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