There are two important characters in Clouds of Sils Maria -- and only one of them is human.
The latest collaboration between director Olivier Assayas and actress Juliette Binoche revolves around an aging actress who's being pushed from center stage. She's the obvious human in this drama.
Then there's the other character: time, a relentless accumulation of years that's pushing the actress out of the spotlight.
Binoche plays Maria, an accomplished middle-aged French actress who spends most of the movie in the company of her impressively efficient assistant (Kristen Stewart).
In addition to handling Maria's affairs -- everything from an impending divorce hearing to press requests -- Stewart's Valentine also interprets an increasingly youth-oriented culture for a skeptical Maria.
The movie opens on a train with Maria and Valentine headed for a tribute to the director who launched Maria's career. In the midst of the trip, they learn that the director has passed away, turning the pending tribute into a sad affair.
At what was to be a celebration, Maria meets an actor with whom she once had an affair, but on whom she has soured. The movie then slips away to Switzerland, where Maria and Valentine ensconce themselves in a mountain home owned by the late director's wife.
Clouds of Sils Maria has backstage allure. Assayas takes us into Maria's private world. She's capable of putting on good front, but her laugh reveals a bit of desperation, as well as the wear of too many cigarettes.
Despite various digressions, Clouds revolves around a single event. A hot-shot director (Lars Eidinger) offers Maria a part in a stage production of The Maloja Snake, the movie that established her career.
This time, though, Maria must play the older of two women engaged in a love relationship that falls apart as the younger woman becomes increasingly assertive.
The more incendiary role has gone to Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moritz), a youthful actress who can't seem to keep her face out of the tabloids. Jo-Ann, who has appeared in sci-fi blockbusters, is either a Hollywood A-lister or about to become one.
Stewart's character occupies a middle ground between Maria and her youthful challenger. She respects Maria, but appreciates Jo-Ann's gift, an admiration that's revealed when Maria and Valentine go to a theater to watch one of Jo-Ann's 3D, sci-fi extravaganzas.
When Maria and Valentine run lines from the upcoming play, it becomes clear that they're also acting out portions of their complex relationship, sometimes in ways that seem too on-the-nose.
It may help to know that the movie has an insider component: Binoche and Assayas worked together on Rendez-vous (1985), an Andre Techine-directed movie that Assayas co-wrote and which helped bring Binoche to prominence. They also teamed for 2008's Summer Hours.
After her fine work in the Alzheimer's drama Still Alice, Stewart continues to impress. She plays the least defined and, therefore, most interesting of the three women.
Assays is no speed demon when it comes to pacing, and he isn't exactly breaking new ground here. Clouds sometimes seems to be drifting, and the insular world of these performers can narrow to the point of off-putting self-absorption.
It's also not clear why Assayas made Binoche, who's 51, into a 40-year-old for his movie. Perhaps he wanted to emphasize that show business so values newness and youth that 40 is considered old for an actress.
As for Maria and Jo-Ann, they're jockeying for position -- not only with each other -- but, in Maria's case, with the inevitability of advancing time. Her tragedy, one supposes, is that she's smart enough to know that she's not going to beat the clock.