No matter how murky, complicated, mysterious, or even interesting the film, placing Juliette Binoche at the center is always a good idea. Like a summer Cuban sunset, Binoche is always difficult to look away from. She’s one of those rare performers who seem to lock us in from the moment she appears, whether she’s running from “Godzilla,” or simply eating candy in “Chocolat.”

I fell in love with her in “The English Patient” and in the remake of “Wuthering Heights.” She has the magical gift of either enhancing a great film or saving a mediocre one. She is Binoche.

In “Clouds of Sils Maria,” Binoche is thankfully almost never off screen, and that delights me. Here, she plays Maria Enders, a world famous actress in her early 50s who can dominate the screen and the stage and take a few days off to do something dumb in a television show for money. She Is Maria Enders and that’s all there is to that.

She has become such a legend in her time, from New York and Paris to Hollywood, that the paparazzi stand back respectfully wherever she goes. She seems to have acquired the stature of a goddess, an Ingrid Bergman or Garbo. But our Maria, in the privacy of her home ,is witty, chain-smoking and fun to be with.

We meet her on a train, where she is on her way to Zurich to attend a devout tribute to a great playwright, Wilhelm Melchior, who discovered her at 18. Melchior seems to have withdrawn from the world now, but is still revered in the lounges of the literati.

As we meet Maria and her personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart), word comes flashing over the Internet that the great man has died.

The core of the film is about Melchior’s famous play “Maloja Snake,” that starred her and rocketed her to fame. The play is about an imperious corporate boss who has an affair with a young woman in her office, the part that Maria, at 18, played. Now there is interest in a remake of the classic, and Maria is offered the part of the older woman, which would be like Anne Baxter playing the Bette Davis role in a remake of “All About Eve” at the end of her career.

Off she and Valentine go to a cozy aerie in the Alps to rehearse. They run the scenes over and over, Valentine reading the young girl, Maria taking over the older part, a task both come to regret as the relationship between them begins to merge with the characters and starts to shatter.

When the play is finally put together in London, a self-obsessed movie playgirl starlet (Chloe Grace Moretz) is hired to play the ingenue, further complicating all the relationships and the plot.

The plot of “Clouds,” winds and weaves, dodges and twists and sometimes, thanks to Binoche, soars, if only for a few splendid moments.

Director/writer Olivier Assayas is a highly regarded and respected director. (I liked his “Paris je t’aime” and “Carlos.”)

Stewart is building her career the right way, slowly, and choosing the best directors. The tiny holes in her neck from “Twilight” have completely vanished.

There are one or two magical moments, thanks to the cinematography of Yorick Le Saux. But then how can you go wrong when your subjects are Juliette Binoche and the Alps?

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.


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