Kristen Stewart and Juliette Binoche star in Clouds of Sils Maris. Photo: © Carole Bethuel / CG Cinema.

Kristen Stewart and Juliette Binoche star in Clouds of Sils Maria. Photo: © Carole Bethuel / CG Cinema.

If film is an art dedicated to exploring the passing of time, perhaps its most intimate experiment is what it does for the people on screen. In Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, time is both catalyst and antagonist, with actress Juliette Binoche caught in some quiet crossfire.

Binoche — whose star rose three decades ago in Assayas’ Rendez-vous — plays Maria Enders, a famous international film actress who discovers that her beloved mentor Wilhelm Melchior, who cast her in the play that launched her career, has passed away mere hours before a ceremony honoring his work. Much like Binoche, who reunites here with Assayas, Maria is confronted with the chance to revisit a working relationship that proved formative for both her and the public at large. In the wake of Wilhelm’s death, she is offered the chance to return to the play that catapulted her — this time foregoing the role of a young ingénue and tackling the play’s older statesman.

Binoche embodies Maria with a graceful balance of ego. There is no question as to why Maria can’t take on the same role she did nearly 40 years prior. Her self-doubt feels less performative than it does cynical: the question never seems to be can she play this other role, but rather why should she have to?

Why she has to is, of course, obvious to anybody who has had even a passing relationship with cinema. For actresses over 35, meaty roles are hard to come by. By 40, you’d be lucky to gnaw at the bone. Life imitated art most recently with Maggie Gyllenhaal, who slammed Hollywood for telling her that at 37 she was officially too old to love a 55-year-old man on camera. Sils Maria devotes a lot of time to the cynical commentary of moviemaking (often to its own detriment — the snark is worse than its bite). But it does well by never making us feel that Maria is tormented by her own wavering fame. It vacillates between her already knowing and coming to terms with it. That kind of back and forth is plentiful in Sils Maria; scenes of her hashing out dialogue with her assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), rise and fall with a flick of Binoche’s tongue. It takes a second for us to know when she’s stepped out of workshopping a character and into some abstract therapy session with Val.

Stewart received the César Award for her work in Sils Maria, making her the first American in history to collect an acting award at the prestigious French ceremony. Early buzz was that Stewart was magnetic, and her work here transcends her previous roles while still playing off their ubiquity. A key scene in the film takes place after Valentine and Maria go see a comic book blockbuster starring Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), the young actress who has been cast opposite Maria. After the film, Val makes a case for the kinds of roles Hollywood leaves for women, and what the subtextual value of those characters and choices say about the women playing them. She might as well be talking to us, pleading for us to forget the young teen that fell in love with a vampire, but knowing that we can’t, forgives us by giving the association purpose.

The film takes great pleasure out of finally giving Stewart something interesting to work with, but it doesn’t shove the performance down our throats as some revelation. The problem with Stewart has always been an inability to disappear. When she recites her lines, you’re not entirely sure she understands them. Numerous scenes of Maria and Val rehearsing together dissipate into sudden bouts of passive aggression between the two women themselves, and their relationship often falls between mother-daughter and some other kind of sexual tension.

These scenes produce energy in an otherwise painful, even-heeled film, thanks largely to complex blocking that visualizes the women’s push-and-pull, but for all that the film is interested in saying about aging, it seems remarkably indifferent to youth. Moretz’s Jo-Ann is an amalgamation of a million different young starlets. The paparazzi footage Maria searches for on YouTube will have you thinking Lindsay Lohan; while the artist aching to escape the studio system might have you cast an eye at Stewart herself, an actress who similarly made a name for herself by simultaneously helming a blockbuster franchise and a decent amount of tabloid cover stories. Yet the film has largely nothing to say about this generation’s talents, or the blurring line between fame and infamy. Without a steady foot in what art actually looks like today, Maria’s strength of character begins to veer on delusional — Assayas starts to look like he’s using her as a proxy.

In fact, all of Assayas’ women seem stifled by his lens, which never takes the leap to near portraiture. Neither does it ever feel lucid enough to capture anything resembling life. The most obvious comparison is John Cassavetes’ Opening Night, which stars Gena Rowlands as an actress confronted with her own mortality and fading relevancy by looking at the project that most defined her. There, Cassavetes captures chaos in every frame; Assayas is a student of such calm and studious work that he fails to illuminate anything particularly true about Maria’s experience. Instead, she gets constant reminders from Stewart and Moretz that the craft, much like the industry, has seemingly changed without her knowing.

These were much the same issues that plagued Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, which picked up Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards. However, Birdman made a point of finding a balance between channeling the energy of youth through the perspective of the old guard. Assayas isn’t quite interested in that. The young filmmakers characterized in Sils Maria, who bookend the film by discussing a potential role in another (you guessed it) comic book movie, are cut from the same cartoon cloth. It’s, instead, the moments when the camera is focused back on Maria — and on Binoche’s eternally quizzical expression — that the film falls back into place.

The narrative makes sure Maria’s journey seem less like an arduous battle. The obvious metaphor would be the mountains that she and Val climb to get a peek at the unique cloud formation that gives the film its name. Much happens on these rolling rock sides. Maria and Val are lost and found — and in a surreal turn of events, lost again. The film just continues on, the train of stardom ever moving. By the time we reach the end, Maria is exactly where she knew she was going. Assayas divides the film into three distinct chapters — and by then, you get a sense that he’s pulled the rug out from under you, and that you’re only just at the beginning of Maria’s last act.

Rating: B-

Video courtesy of IFC Films.

“Clouds of Sils Maria” is currently playing in select theaters nationwide. The film runs at 124-minutes.