At the outset of this English-language French production, one is likely to get the feeling of racing toward someplace fabulous. Everything on the screen is in motion. A hint of hubbub mixes intriguingly with an atmosphere of luxury and glamor. The action takes place in the first-class section of a train.
As it zips through the Swiss Alps, Blueberries and smartphones buzz, bringing important news to important people. The writer-director, Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours), creates the sense that we're at the epicenter of something special and that the destination is sure to prove even more so. Then the whole thing goes off the rails.
The first act of Clouds of Sils Maria does little to betray the vacuousness to which all aboard, passengers and audience, are en route. First we meet Val, the dancing-as-fast-as-she-can personal assistant played by Kristen Stewart. She literally juggles phones and messages for her boss, a movie star named Maria and portrayed by Juliette Binoche.
Maria is on her way to a ceremony where she'll accept an award for the director who made her famous at 18 with the lead in a film called Maloja Snake. As we'll be reminded repeatedly, its plot concerns a scheming young beauty who seduces her older boss and drives her to suicide.
As fate — and a needlessly convoluted script — would have it, however, the director dies before the award can be accepted. At the ceremony-turned-memorial, a filmmaker approaches Maria with the idea of a Maloja Snake remake, this time with her in the role of the older woman. The younger woman's part, he proposes, would go to a troubled Lindsay Lohan type (Chloë Grace Moretz).
Much agonizing over the cruel passage of time ensues — though, before long, Maria signs on. As she herself points out, she's past the age when dangling from wires in front of a green screen for an X-Men sequel is seemly. See what Assayas did there?
As becomes evident at some point in the seemingly interminable second act, the auteur's latest isn't so much about telling a story as referencing the state of popular culture. Not commenting on it. Simply and rather pointlessly alluding to it.
He notes the phenomenon of superhero movies in passing, for example, and — I bet he thought this was his masterstroke — gets all meta with a scene in which Val learns on an entertainment site that Moretz's character is dating a married man. Get it — just like Stewart did in real life! And the point? This is a long, blabby film, but I don't believe anyone ever got around to saying. How French.
Hey, the scenery is spectacular, and there's some fine acting (Stewart is the first American to earn a César for best supporting actress). Binoche, of course, is a national treasure and does her national-treasure thing — though so little happens that your mind may wander and recall that she did the same in cinematic milestones such as Dan in Real Life (2007) and Godzilla (2014).
I should add that, at times, Assayas directs like a mental patient off his meds. Again and again, he fades out of scenes before they've finished. He shoots a sequence where Val drives along a twisting mountain road in psychedelic double exposure and then neglects to offer comment or explanation.
On a high-altitude hike, Val and Maria eventually witness the Maloja Snake, a cloud formation that winds slowly through an Alpine valley like a colossal cotton anaconda. There's a reason it's called a natural wonder. It's only natural to wonder what any of this self-indulgent silliness is supposed to mean.