09/05/2014 01:59 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2014

Toronto Notebook: In Clouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas Really 'Gets' Women

Well, the annual Toronto sprocket opera is once more upon us, with its legions of critics who wish they could osmose into three separate beings to view the must-see films all scheduled at the same or overlapping hours. The vibe is more carnavalesque than in past versions of the gargantuan film fest, with King Street, the main drag in Toronto's in-progress Entertainment 'hood, now a long pedestrian mall.

For my first screening, fresh off Air Canada, I chose well. The Clouds of Sils Maria, the latest from Olivier Assayas -- who can claim almost cult status among his fans -- is a sumptuous, dark tone poem that is above all a cinematic paean to the mesmerizing screen presence and beauty of Juliette Binoche, now in the triumphant flush of early middle age.

But Clouds is also about a great deal more: the interweave of art and life. The artistic values of the past versus the current fetish for kick-ass alien super heroines. The struggle to come to terms with aging. The awesomeness of the Upper Engadine in Switzlerand. And Assayas really "gets" women. In Clouds he unspools arguably the most layered portrait every committed to screen of the love-hate relationship, complete with power plays and erotic sparks, between two lovely and amazing women.

Assayas sets you down in media res on a lurching train headed for the Swiss Alps. As Maria Enders, a veteran stage star, Binoche is also in motion and unstable, juggling a divorce and an upcoming appearance to claim an award for the ailing playwright, based in Sils Maria, who cast her in a plum role at eighteen. Maria's accompanied by her sidedkick/assistant Val (Kristen Stewart in nerdy glasses that only make her sexier), a troubleshooter who mans several Blackberrys and fields all the impossible demands on Maria's time and attention.

It's masterful the way Assayas conveys his characters' inner turmoil, first with a rushing train and, later, in a series of car rides through snow country in which he captures mottled, fleeting effects by shooting from outside the windows. Clouds takes its time about clarifying all the facts and players, as if the viewer were first meeting these women in real life.

The movie really finds its feet in the second act when exploring the love, dependence, and underlying friction between Maria and Val. Maria's been offered a part in the play that launched her career, but this time she'll play "the older woman," while a hot new upstart (Chloe Moretz) plays Maria's former role as the girl who seduces her. Maria's flattered but pissed. How galling to be relegated to the role of the older woman, whom the playwright has written as a victim who commits suicide.

As Val and Maria run lines -- often while hiking through the Alpine landscape -- it becomes clear the women in the play intersect with the real-life pair. Maria and Val become incompatible like warring marrieds. I leave you to experience the film for yourself to see how it plays out. Forming a mystical backdrop, the clouds of Sils Maria snake through the valley in an eerie boil of fog, nature doing its part to bring the women's crisis to a head.

Much as been made of Kristen Stewart's portrayal of Val, as if people were still amazed she can pull out more than a vampire's girl. In Clouds she's subdued and controlled and makes the perfect foil for Binoche's emotionally expansive style -- yet I've seen Stewart play that kind of cool before. Binoche, as a woman on the edge, goes deeper. Her laugh is almost an encyclopedia of emotions: girlish excitement, desperation, drunkenness, disbelief at life's cruel tricks, occasionally joy. Curiously, it's Binoche's body, her pale fleshiness, that the camera loves, while Stewart comes off as asexual.