Now 60, and always more of a wry classicist than a maverick, the writer-director Olivier Assayas is one of the steadiest and most reliable filmmakers in contemporary cinema. I like his latest, "Clouds of Sils Maria," a great deal; it's beautifully acted and has a few wise (if familiar) things to impart regarding how age and experience must make way for, or at least accommodate, the brashness of youth.
You should know, however, what sort of dramatic strategies you're dealing with, since you may come for the actors — Juliette Binoche is in it, so that's a start — but may leave frustrated with the material they've been given.
There's no deliberate obfuscation in the neatly plotted "Clouds of Sils Maria," only a teasingly ambiguous resolution for one of the major characters echoed in the fate of a character in a play being discussed at the very same moment. Assayas returns to a theme he has explored before, that of the muddy distinction between one's art and one's life. The story concerns the close-but-fractious relationship between a film star, played by Binoche, and her personal assistant, played by Kristen Stewart.
A generation earlier, before Twitter and Facebook and a lot of other things she decries, the Binoche character, Maria, got her big break in a psychosexually charged play. "Clouds of Sils Maria" opens on a train to Zurich. On board are Maria and her personal assistant, Val (Stewart, perpetually working two smartphones). They are traveling to attend a tribute for the celebrated author of the play that made Maria a star. It's titled "Maloja Snake," named after the serpentine cloud formation, considered a portent of bad weather, that slides across the Engadine Valley near Sils Maria in the Alps.
En route to Zurich, Val gets word that the famous playwright has died, so the tribute becomes an ashen-toned memorial. Still, the show must go on, and business calls. Maria is being pressured to commit to a London revival of "Maloja Snake," this time playing the role of the sexually vulnerable prey of the snakelike younger woman. A hot but hot-publicity-mess of a Hollywood star (played by Chloe Grace Moretz) is to be her co-star.
Much of Assayas' film unfolds as if it were a two-woman play set in the Alps, about an actress and her ambiguous ally of an assistant. They banter, bicker and eventually run lines for Maria's rehearsal preparation. Val wants the scoop on Maria's romantic liaisons; Maria might be jealous of Val's fleeting romance with a photographer. By design, the dialogue from the (fictional) play comments directly on the central, shifting power relationship in the film, sometimes elegantly, sometimes a little awkwardly.
On the other hand, there's nothing awkward or studied about these performances. Stewart has plenty of detractors, but in the right roles she's pretty terrific — an actress of quick, darting instincts, able to put up and tear through a character's defenses with startling speed. Stewart won the Cesar (the French Oscar) for her work in "Clouds of Sils Maria," the first American to win that award.
Binoche has it tougher and is even better. Maria is a tangle of insecurity, bravado, talent and doubt, and the actress makes the most of it. The film glides and snakes along its path, a path we have trod before in so many other films and plays. But often it's not where you go but how you go that matters.
"Clouds of Sils Maria" - 3 stars (out of four)
MPAA rating: R (for language and brief graphic nudity)
Running time: 2:03
Phillips is a Tribune Newspapers critic.