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"Clouds of Sils Maria" drifts by like a cloud itself — lightly wandering to nowhere, breaking off into wisps and finally dissipating.

Not that the film is empty. It meditates long and hard on questions of age, sincerity, celebrity and love, piling irony on irony. And it features a remarkably natural performance by Kristen Stewart that's so unastounding it's astounding (the role won her a French Cesar, their equivalent of an Oscar; she's the only American actress to ever be so honored).

But there's a quiet airiness to the film that never really finds ground in plot or emotion, which is most likely what writer-director Olivier Assayas intended. The movie drifts by like age and life alike.

At its center is Maria Enders (Juliet Binoche), a famous movie star hounded by paparazzi, who early on is asked to star in a stage remake of the play that made her famous 20 years earlier. Then she played a young seductress; now she would play the older woman being seduced.

Stewart plays Maria's efficient, hipster-tattooed assistant, Valentine. Together, they adjourn to a house in the remote Sils Maria region of the Swiss Alps, which does indeed have impressive clouds, so Maria can learn her lines and get into her new character.

Valentine, naturally, reads the lines of the younger woman, and as the two work through the play it becomes difficult to tell which lines are from the play's characters and which lines belong to the film's characters; it all becomes interchangeable.

Is the play's seduction creeping into real life? Is Maria as confused as the character she's playing? The questions float by, as unanswerable as a cloud is light.

tlong@detroitnews.com

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'Clouds of Sils Maria'

GRADE: B

Rated R for language and brief graphic nudity

Running time: 124 minutes

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