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I arrived in Toronto on Wednesday night for the 39th annual Toronto International Film Festival (heretofore known as TIFF, because that's a lotta words) absent the press accreditation that most of my brethren had come armed with. More than probably any other worldwide film festival, TIFF is inundated with press, and there are only so many they can accommodate. I get it. What that means, beyond the fact that I won't get to add another pretty lanyard to my collection (I do love a good lanyard collection) is that I'll be attending public screenings, buttressed by the occasional rush/standby seating for press & industry screening, for which I have been give five (5) vouchers. Please try to refrain from crying your eyes out as I sing the lament of the only partially accredited media member. I'll be just fine. 

What that meant specifically on Thursday night however was that while my press buddies all saw the TIFF opening night film The Judge — about which I have had my say via a close reading of its trailer — I was waiting in the two-hour line for Olivier Assayas' The Clouds of Sils Maria, and, regardless of the line, I figured I'd made out better on the bargain. Particularly as my spot around the corner from the theater afforded me a great view of Al Pacino entering (and later exiting) an industry lounge. The Oscar winner who appears in two TIFF films this year (Barry Levinson's The Humbling and David Gordon Green's Manglehorn) stopped to sign fans' Scarface posters and pose for photos, and later, while being whisked away, waved out the window of his SUV like Eva Peron, as the man in line behind me shouted "AL PACINO!" Yes, in fact, that was Al Pacino. I suppose it's preferable to what I can only assume are the "HOO-AH"s he gets daily.

Once seated in the palatial (and spacious! Take note, New York City theaters) Princess of Wales Theater, we were greeted by Assayas and, somewhat unexpectedly given the crowd reaction, star Juliette Binoche, who made for the most drop-dead gorgeous person ever to complain of jet lag, at least that I've seen in person.

If it seems like I'm putting off talking about The Clouds of Sils Maria itself, I probably am. The positive Cannes reception and the promise of an Assayas/Binoche/Kristen Stewart team-up had this one at the top of my most anticipated TIFF films, and for a while, it had me on the hook. The story, which Assayas says he wrote specifically for Binoche, sees her playing an actress, Maria Enders, returning to the play that launched her career, only this time in the role of the older woman rather than the sexy/dangerous ingenue. The shift in power dynamics throws her, and we see life and art blur as she struggles with getting into the head of this older, more victimized, more pathetic woman. Stewart plays Enders' personal assistant, Valentine, whose professional dedication steadily gives way to a more personally-invested advocacy of the play and the hot young talents (a prodigious director; a firebrand young starlet, played by Chloe Grace Moretz) who seem to intimidate Enders.

The interplay between Binoche and Stewart is the real draw here, and it's quite enjoyable. I've long been an advocate of Stewart's talent, and the further she gets away from Twilight and its like, the better. Assayas spoke of what a leap it was for Stewart to take this role, which is a bit misleading. Apart from it being an Olivier Assayas film, and all the prestige that entails, Stewart's role doesn't stray too far from her brand. Still present are the hair-tossing and semi-confident mutterings, but here they're at least put to good use, showing us a character who's seeking to be taken seriously by another woman who dominates her in the power structure. For as heavy-handed as the parallels are between Maria's life and the play (and, seriously, it's all anyone can talk about, at length, over and over), the power imbalance between Maria and Valentine is handled with a lighter touch, often in scenes where the two actresses' natural-feeling conversations break into uncontrollable fits of laughter. If you were looking for the movie in which Bella Swan stopped obsessing about Edward Cullen and instead started getting the red-wine giggles with Juliette Binoche, this is the movie for you.

Unfortunately, it's less clear what Assayas is trying to do with the rest of the film, which is loaded down with stylistic flourishes and hairpin turns of mood and tone and musical accompaniment. I'm not sure where this kitchen-sink approach connects to the story he's trying to tell. Additionally, while I sometimes worry that I'm overly harsh towards Moretz, she's honestly just out of her depth here, unable to sell anything about her character, a Lindsay Lohan-inspired talented trainwreck who comes to represent everything about the industry that threatens Binoche. She feels adrift on a good day, and good days don't involve having to stack her talent up next to Binoche. That said, it's another head-scratcher for Assayas when the scene where Moretz's Jo-Ann shows her true colors feel unearned even after two and a half hours of knowing exactly what's coming. The director spoke of this long-gestating project as once intending to cast Stewart in the Jo-Ann role and Mia Wasikowska as Valentine, a swap that would have probably done wonders for both characters and both actresses.

As a festival kick-off, having a highly anticipated film deliver something of a dud should probably feel more disappointing than it does. But it's TIFF, and I have over twenty more films to take in before it's all done. Not to mention how many more Pacino sightings. 

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