At the peak of her acting career, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is asked to perform in a revival of the play that made her famous years ago. But back then she played the role of Sigrid, an alluring young girl who disarms and eventually drives her boss Helena to suicide. Now she is being asked to take on the other role, that of the older Helena.

She departs with her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) to rehearse in a remote region of the Alps. A young Hollywood actress with a penchant for scandal, Jo-Ann (Chloë Grace Moretz) is to take on the role of Sigrid. Maria looks at Jo-Ann and sees an unsettling reflection of herself in her.

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Portrait of the actress as a middle-aged woman.

TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL: Clouds of Sils Maria, Oliver Assayas’s elusive new film, begins with the death of an author. Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), a famous actress of stage and screen, and her dexterous assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) are travelling by train to Zurich when news reaches them that the man Maria is set to honour, Wilhelm Melchior, author of the play that launched her acting career, has just died. The tribute goes on as planned, and in its wake Maria is persuaded, barely, to join a restaging of The Snake of Majola, Melchior’s play about a successful but unhappy woman’s seduction by a callow 18-year-old girl. In making a star of her 20 years earlier, the character of Sigrid fused to Maria’s sense of self; for this and other reasons, playing the older, sadder Helena becomes an existential ordeal.

If Sils Maria absorbs Wilhelm’s death rather quickly, allusions to the death of the author loom and wind through the film like the serpentine cloud formation that inspired the title of Wilhelm’s play (and which is captured in Arnold Fanck’s 1924 silent, The Cloud Phenomenon of Majola). Barthes, in his essay 'The Death of the Author,' argued against the critical assignation of intention to an author’s work: to insist that a given work means only what the author intended it to mean is to limit that work. In his portrait of the actress as a middle-aged woman, Assayas explores the idea that performers must in some sense take authorship of the text they are performing, and make characters their own. But Maria’s intransigent view of Sigrid as all things fresh and essential and Helena as a pathetic cliché further suggests the limits of individual perspective, and the way art, experienced and revisited over time, can reveal those limitations. Maria must accept the death of the actress-as-author, if you will, before she can move on, and create new meaning.

"It’s star power curiously severed from the depiction of a star and her power."

So what to make of the fact that Assayas declared his intentions for Clouds of Sils Maria before shooting began? "I've written it for Juliette Binoche, it's based on her,” the director told the press last year. “A Juliette Binoche movie about Juliette Binoche with Juliette Binoche." Despite a committed performance from Binoche, by turns translucent, complex, and surprisingly playful, the character of Maria Enders feels too indeterminate to lend the film the kind of layered, intimate reckoning Assayas hinted at. In the moments that Binoche surpasses her character’s mantle of “ageing actress” (that she is forty is often and richly lamented, in a way that feels both archaic and disingenuous: Binoche is fifty) it is because she has managed to trump a cool-blooded, somewhat surgical script with the distinct warmth of her charisma. It’s star power curiously severed from the depiction of a star and her power.

Binoche shares most of her surpassing moments with Stewart, whose smoldering self-consciousness as the faithful, officious Valentine Assayas harnesses to fascinating effect. Star and assistant have developed a hermetic codependency that simmers with frustration: in literally sealing them off from the world, in the alpine chalet where Val helps Maria rehearse the role of Helena, Assayas develops the film’s most persuasive atmosphere—that surrounding a lonely performer and her perhaps equally lonely paid consort. That Maria has spent decades within a similarly cloistered reality has left her unable reconcile the passage of time (“Time’s gone by and she can’t accept it,” Maria says of Helena, in an example of the script’s tendency to strike upon its themes with a ball peen hammer), warping her senses of identity and place in the world. Val chides Maria for not keeping current with the world of celebrity; Maria mocks Val’s passion for Hollywood trash, and for the rebel starlet (Chloe Moretz, trying a little too hard) cast as the new Sigrid.

“The text is like an object,” says Val, whose interpretation of the play clashes bitterly with Maria’s, “it’s going to change perspective based on where you’re standing.” Maria accepts only one interpretation, her own, developed while standing inside the text, and as a result has spent her entire adult life resisting time, as though her only option, in no longer being Sigrid, was to become Helena, who runs out of story at the age of 40 and literally disappears (in the play she commits suicide, as Wilhelm does in the film). In fact it is the long-suffering Val who disappears from Sils Maria, in a scene characteristic of the film’s cultivated air of transience.

In a sense what Assayas gives us are scenes from a life that the central character is not quite living, which may account for bumpy pacing and a patchwork aesthetic that crosses elements of high style (scenes are often fused by fades to black, the ellipsis of cinematic language) with those of strident naturalism. By the end of the film Maria is mouthing phrases of self-possession, unruffled by Moretz’s casual nods to her elder’s irrelevance and assuring a young director who wrote his next film for her that she no longer fits the image that inspired him. But these scenes draw past with the same ambivalence as the rest, leaving us unsure whether the great actress too has run out of story, or in escaping its terms has found some measure of peace.