A heady psychosexual drama that’s steeped in dense anxieties and rich European glamour (the film was partially funded by Chanel), Olivier Assayas’s latest finds the French auteur at the very top of his game. Combining the acute professional paranoia of All About Eve with the existential crisis of Persona, Clouds of Sils Maria stars the remarkably accomplished Juliette Binoche as Maria Enders, a fading star who’s agreed to be in a revival of the play that made her famous as a young ingenue. This time, however, Maria isn’t performing the part of the seductive teenager awakening to the power of her sexuality; she’s playing the older woman who’s wrapped around the girl’s finger. Retreating to the Swiss Alps with her unfailingly honest assistant (Kristen Stewart, a deadpan revelation), Maria begins a rehearsal process that will force her to grapple with the presentness of her past.
It’s a sexy concept that will thrill Assayas neophytes, but the director’s longtime fans will find its pleasures virtually pornographic. The film may not share the same fetish for reflexivity that made 1996’s Irma Vep such a playful hall of mirrors—that film used people as a conduit to exploring the arts, while this one does the opposite—but Sils Maria owns its meta moments, Binoche mining our familiarity with her real-life career in order to contextualize Maria’s neuroses and Stewart making several pointed comments about her own immense celebrity. An erotic tension develops between the two women, but as the film around them grows increasingly cryptic, it begins to seem as though Maria may be lusting after her own shadow. Assayas eventually punctuates the point with a gut punch, blurring the line between fantasy and reality in order to illustrate how great art can make the distinction irrelevant. And this is indeed great art.
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