Re-run in celebration of FIAF’s “Theater & Cinema” series. Clouds of Sils Maria will screen this afternoon and this evening. Get your tickets here.
With his last film, Something in the Air, filmmaker Olivier Assayas revisited the sentiment of his profound and poetic early films to give an autobiographical look at an artist’s coming of age. With his latest cinematic endeavor, Clouds of Sils Maria, the acclaimed French director again reaches into the past—but this time through the eyes of the performer, re-teaming with one of his first collaborators, actress Juliette Binoche. Exactly 30 years ago, Assayas received his first screenwriting credit on André Téchiné’s César Award-winning Rendez-vous, the film which also catapulted Juliette Binoche to international stardom. Whereas that film told the story of an ingenue on the precipice of her career, Clouds of Sils Maria brings us into the world of seasoned, internationally celebrated actress, Maria Enders, at the peak of her career.
Written for and around Binoche, the film begins when Enders is invited to perform in the revival of the play that made her a star twenty years prior. Having originally played the role of Sigrid (an enticing young woman who drives her boss, Helena, to kill herself), now in her matured age Enders must take on the role of Helena, opposite an infamous tabloid-dwelling Hollywood starlet (Chloë Grace Moretz). To prepare for the role, Enders escapes to Sils Maria, an isolated and serene location in the French Alps. To help her rehearse, she brings along her devoted assistant, Valentine, played by Kristen Stewart in the most wonderfully nuanced and natural performance of her career—and one which made her the first American woman to win France’s César Award. With Assayas’ keen sensitivity to the human condition and the everyday suffering of artistic expression, Clouds of Sils Maria unfolds as an intimate and cerebral chamber drama that hits at the nexus of between performance, celebrity, and empathy.
Earlier this year during the New York Film Festival, I sat down with Assayas to discuss how Binoche lured him into making this film, the weird energy of Kristen Stewart, and how woman are far more interesting subjects than men.
Looking back at Something in the Air, this film feels like a strong departure from that and in a very different register—was that a conscious decision for you?
Yeah, I mean this film kind of happened to me, and it came to me via Juliette Binoche. She’s the one who said to me, “Why don’t we make a film together?” It was not planned; there was no strategy there.
Is that how you generally approach most of your films?
Yes, although some are more concrete. When I’m making a movie like Carlos, I make it because it comes to me in a weird way, and then it grows and grows. I try to get rid of it, but it doesn’t go away, so I end up having to do it. Something in the Air was more controlled, and it was something I knew I wanted to make and knew it was the right time to make it. This movie, in a certain way it echoes movies I’ve done, like Irma Vep, which also dealt with an actress playing her own part. It’s also an extremely different film, but ultimately has something to do with a part of my life, which is this relationship with Juliette Binoche.
We started together and met via cinema because we were both involved in this movie, Rendez-vous, thirty years ago. That was her first big part as an actress and basically put her on the map and it was my first screenwriting credit, which really helped my career. So when Juliette calls me and says we should make a movie together, it’s something that has an instant echo and means something. I know why she’s calling me and saying that, and I know she has a point even if I don’t know what that point is yet at the time.
What is it about Juliette as an actor and a woman that continues to fascinate you?
It’s extremely difficult to answer that question and be completely honest about it. Juliette has done a million things and has such a big career, and my initial doubts in doing this film were about what I can do with her that she has not done a million times. I wanted to make something that wouldn’t feel like we were going over the same ground and doing the same thing over and over again, so it had to be something that would make the film interesting to me and to her. It was not a given, like, oh wow we’re going to make a film together, it was more cautious.
I know she’d made films with Abbas Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Bruno Dumont, and she ‘s done all those movies in the past with Leos Carax—so where do I fit in? What can I bring her that is very specifically what she has not already done. The reason I called her back three days later and said, yeah, maybe let’s try, is because I felt that she had never really played herself. So why not turn the problem around and instead of thinking of what kind of part I could write for Juliette, why not try to imagine what kind of movie I could build around her, using whatever I know of her as the inspiration for the film.
So is this a story you would not have told if not for her involvement?
No, it’s a movie that totally has its roots in what I know of Juliette, what I don’t know of her, and what I fantasize about her. It’s also the echo of our shared past. In a sense that Rendez-vous was a movie about how a very young girl becomes an actress, it ends in more of less the same place where Sils Maria ended. I haven’t seen the movie more or less since it was made, so I’m not sure I remember everything precisely, but it’s kind of a ghost story and deals with life, art, and creation. So this movie is totally fueled by our shared memories and the personality of Juliette, with the fact that she has a career in French and English.
I’ve always thought of Juliette as a woman who transcends age. Of course she has to deal with it internally, but in her roles and performances, she simply continues to evolve.
Exactly, yes. Let’s say that’s part of the subject of the film, it’s how some actresses have the capacity to transcend aging but still have to deal with it in one way or another. I suppose I would have made a similar movie around Isabelle Huppert.
After making your last two films with male protagonists, was it refreshing to go back and tell a woman’s story? Do you find you connect to women more as an artist?
Yes, yes. I missed it. It inspires me. Although in different ways, most of my movies were really centered on woman. It’s only in the last stage of my career that I’ve been getting somewhat interested in making boys films. It’s mostly because I had never made them so all of a sudden there was something new about it for me, but my inspiration has mostly been about women. It’s always very hard to explain or understand, but it has to do with that fact that woman are more interesting.
Historically, they are in a more interesting position. The position of women in modern society is changing, and it’s transforming society. Contemporary woman have to deal with reinventing their position in society, regarding their work, family, and their love life. It’s the most important change in modern society, so it’s exciting because there are more interesting dynamics than the identity of men who feel threatened, which basically creates the worst and most stupid aspects of modern society.
How did Kristen Stewart come into the picture? Considering you wrote the film around Juliette, did you initially have anyone in mind to play opposite her?
Not really. I didn’t write with someone specific in mind. I just know that the moment I sat down and started imagining who could be Valentin, the name of Kristen instantly jumped from the page.
Was there a particular role of hers that caught your attention?
I liked her in every movie I’ve seen of her. Even in movie like The Runaways, I thought she was so amazing as Joan Jett. I was not so fond of the film, I think it could have a million times better, but the way she grasped that character and embodied it, it was believable. She had that punk rock energy, and few actresses can do that. I met her a couple of times in real life, thanks to my producer because he had produced On the Road and they became friends. That film was in festivals when Something in the Air was traveling around, so we bumped into each other a few times. I really liked her, and I liked her presence. She has a weird presence, but she has a kind of intensity, which is what translates best on screen.
She and Juliette have a simpatico relationship and fantastic energy between them. Was that something that grew instantly and organically or did you work with them to build that dynamic?
It just happened. I don’t work with actors, I film them, but I don’t work with them in the sense that I don’t rehearse. I don’t do reading and I don’t give them comments on the psychology of the character or backstories. I’m just not interested in that, it bores me to death. I believe in spontaneity and recording in the documentary way of what happens when the actors say the lines for the first time. So you can say I film rehearsals, but another way of putting it is, that what you see in the film happens to be rehearsals, it’s like the first time they say those words, and it’s magical.
That’s where I connected the most with Kristen. I’m less organically attached to Juliette’s process. She needs to work and she needs rehearsal, but I did not give her rehearsal. She needs a coach, but I did not give her a coach. She kind of resents that still, but it’s not my culture and I don’t like it. If they want to rehearse in front of the mirror in the bathroom, I don’t have a problem with it, I just don’t want to know about it. I just want to know that whenever they are on set things will come out with a certain degree of spontaneity. So Kristen is the opposite of Juliette in that way—she learns her lines in the morning and thinks she’s done after we’ve filmed one or two takes.
That’s also evident in their characters and performances, as Juliette/Maria is so heightened and theatrical, whereas Kristen/Valentine provides a more mellow, naturalistic foil.
Exactly, and ultimately it’s not really something you can predict. You don’t know what is going to happen between two actresses in a scene. They could have disliked each other because they’d never met, so anything could have happened. Here we were extremely lucky that there was this instant bond between them and an instant connection.
Thinking of the discussions in the film, do find that theater imitates life more than life imitates theater?
Let’s suppose art is what happens at a later stage and is what happens when a playwright is writing. In the middle, what is happening is a human being trying to understand the emotions of another human being. We not so much into art as within struggling to be able to share the suffering and emotion of the fellow human being. It’s very basic and the beauty of what acting is about. Actors, they’re simultaneously part of the artistic process, they’re part of the creation, and what they bring is some human reality. They can’t fake it, they have to find one way or another to go beyond the issue of art and make it about understanding.
I could sense some strong connections between this film and R.W. Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Did that serve as a reference for you?
Yes, very early on. It was actually the first idea I had. I thought they would be rehearsing Petra von Kant, but then I realized that it didn’t exactly fit in, it’s the wrong pacing. When you’re dealing with a play there are a lot of words involved, so Petra was not the same rhythm and it’s much longer scenes than whatever I could afford if I wanted to make this movie interesting. So I had to make an extremely condensed version of some key moments from Petra von Kant.
Clouds of Sils Maria begins its theatrical run this weekend at IFC Center.