French filmmaker Olivier Assayas’ career is hard to define. Perhaps that’s because there’s a restless eclecticism and questioning at its core. But his films, often about outsiders or marginalized figures, are both personal and referential. His coming of age tale “Something in the Air” traces the student youth riots of Paris in 1968, but is also partly autobiographical. His three part miniseries for French television “Carlos” (presented as three films in the U.S. or one long five and half hour experience) is on the surface a biopic of a famous terrorist, but is implicitly a lament of 1960s idealism curdling 1970s nihilism —a cultural shift the 60 year old filmmaker experienced personally.
His latest film “Clouds of Sils Maria” is very much personal and metatexual; in some ways, the movie is concerned with his relationship with Juliette Binoche —with whom he’s a friend, but up until 2008’s “Summer Hours” he hadn’t worked with in twenty three years— and is a story examining how we confront the world around us as we age. It’s also a mysteriously moody movie, light on plot and answers but intricate with intimate and complex character dynamics that are constantly revealing fascinating emotional layers (not unlike Fassbinder’s chamber play “The Tears Of Petra Von Kant”). In the movie, Binoche plays an aging actress who is asked to star in a revival of the play that made her famous. This time she’s asked to play the part of the aged woman driven to madness by her manipulative younger seductress. Kristen Stewart plays her personal assistant who is put in the difficult position of employee but also as a friend and occasionally as adversary. Chloe Moretz plays a type of Kristen Stewart figure: a talented but troubled teen star who is hounded by the celebrity media, given to bad behavior and is poised to star opposite Binoche in the play. If it sounds very meta, that’s because it is. I’ve previously described it as a, “layered, metatextual look at time, desire, control and self through the immersion of role playing. “
Like its namesake, “Clouds Of Sils Maria” is a vaporous fog of a movie that rolls in and evaporates quickly, perhaps leaving traditional notions of “meaning” on the fringes. But bolstered by the movie’s three lead performances and how each of the younger women reflect back at the aging star, its hall of mirrors methodology can be strangely mesmerizing (Read: The 25 Best Films of 2015 We’ve Already Seen). We spoke to Assayas about the movie last week and you can read our full conversation below.
So the movie is like a reflection on time and a reinterpretation of personal history, both real and imagined. What made you land on that as a subject?
Well, I suppose that I was drawn to it by the inner logic of the film, because I imagined the film based on Juliette Binoche. It’s not just that I wrote the film for her —I wrote the film about her. I was using many elements, not so much of her own personality but of how she approaches parts and how she works. But it’s also about our past history and the fact that we’ve known each other for a long time.
Right, both your careers essentially launched at the same time.
We met when we were very young. I co-wrote the screenplay for [Andre Techine’s 1985 film) “Rendez-vous,” which put Juliette on the map. She was 19 years old, and we’re talking about the mid ‘80s. It was also my first major credit as a screenwriter, so it also certainly opened the road for me to make my own first feature. So when I started thinking about the movie I would write around Juliette, I knew it would have to deal with history, our past and how we connect and disconnect. It’s this very notion of time and history and looking back. It’s something that invited itself into the movie and it’s also in the sense that you write about yourself as much as you write about your characters. It was the way I could get so personally and intimately involved in the very fabric of the film.
And then of course because of the casting there’s all these meta levels…
The paradox of this film is the meta aspect of it, but it’s not the heart of it. It’s more like the comedy element of the film. The way I’m playing with the identities of the actresses and how we remove one side of the border to the other is what somehow makes it funny. I suppose there’s a certain irony, but ultimately what the film about, hidden behind that surface in its most simple sense is: how do we deal with time? How do we deal with aging, which is something that not only actresses care about, but all of us care about.
The movie has an amorphous quality that’s very low on plot and reflects on aging and time.
I think art in general is never about answers. It’s always about questions, it’s about doubt, and the only way it can echo with its audience is really because its non-conclusive. Ultimately, it leaves the door open for your own faults and your own memories. It’s your own interpretation. So that is very important.
There’s obviously a play within the movie, but it’s also staged like a chamber play. Were people like Bergman and Fassbender on your mind?
I’m a writer/director, so writing has always been the key to my filmmaking in many ways, and of course I’ve always looked up to the great writer/directors. Ever since I have started making films, the great playwrights like Bergman and Fassbinder have been models. Yet I’ve repressed the relationship to the stage and the theater in my own films. I also made this movie to try in my own way to connect with that world.
Because you’ve never done stage plays, operas and other artistic disciplines?
Yes, those are things that I’ve never really practiced. I’ve been 100% a filmmaker. I acknowledge that my inspiration is in a certain way connected to theater, but I did not plan it. I was writing this screenplay, which is very much again about Juliette. I wanted to have her do something she had never done before: playing herself or a character very similar to herself. So I knew she would be working, studying the text, and she would be in the process of appropriating a character, so that’s how some straightforward theater was weaved in the film.
But I had no idea there would be so much dialogue, so when I finished writing the screenplay, I kind of freaked out, because how do you deal with that? How am I getting away with this? So it was challenging to find a certain rhythm and a certain energy to it. It made me completely dependent on the cast. The energy in the film had to be within the acting. It had to come from Juliette and Kristen.
Binoche and Stewart have a very complicated relationship — they’re friends, but there’s an ego and competitiveness on top of a employee/employer relationship. Tell me about working with those two.
To be honest, the part scared Juliette. When I gave her the screenplay, she was surprised in good and bad ways. In good ways because the film had a broader scope than anything we had really discussed, but then the bad side was she would have to deal with aging, and she knew it was going to be painful. I think the way she approached it was by letting it go. I think she certainly thought about this, prepared herself for it, but the minute she was on the set, all that anxiety vanished. She did not give it a second thought.
I’ve known Juliette for forever, and I’ve never seen her that happy, that generous and never questioning anything we were doing. She was ready to go all the way, and I think it contributed a lot to the energy of the shoot.
How did Stewart’s approach differ?
I think it was the dynamics between her and Kristen that really shaped the film. While I’m sure she loved the part and the subject, I think Juliette was a very strong element in what attracted her to the film. She admired the way Juliette had never really been absorbed by the industry. She has managed to keep an independence, and that helped answer a lot of the questions that Kristen had about all the work and the evolution of the work. She loved the spontaneity of Juliette, the way that she creates her own space within the film. And Kristen was there to learn in a certain way. Juliette did not expect that, and she was flattered that Kristen would be so respectful of her work and she did not want to disappoint her. She kept on trying new things and pushing herself further, and Kristen followed. Kristen was excited by the interaction, which really created an interesting dynamic within the movie.
Yeah, it’s interesting because their dynamic is intimate but tense and fragile from minute one. It’s almost like they’re on eggshells with each other because they kind of wound one another often.
Oh yes! It has to be cruel when you confront youth and middle age. You can pretend it’s not, or you can pretend that it’s the way of dealing with that, but it is cruel and it has to be understood and accepted on both sides.
I loved the Chloe Moretz character, which I believe Stewart was supposed to play first. Was it fun to comment on blockbuster culture the way you did with her movie-within-the-movie character?
It’s one of the comedy elements of the film. And Chloe’s extremely smart and witty and she got it. She really had so much fun going from one persona and playing with that kind of media culture. But what was interesting for me was the fact that she’s modern. She has a classical training, and she ultimately she comes from the same place as someone like Juliette comes from, but she’s aware of the modern world. She’s aware that you have the Internet, you have social media, you have some of this kind of pervasiveness of western culture. When you’re an actress, you have to play with it and be able to use it as your own space. You have to somehow control it before it controls you, and so while Juliette’s character knows about all that stuff but won’t touch it or participate in it, Chloe’s character is completely fluent in that language and takes from it what she wants —meaning a kind of scandalous celebrity thing— but then on the other side, she knows exactly how to protect herself from it. She’s in control of it. Her character is really from another time. And so the film’s not so much about aging for Juliette’s character, but it’s about being confronted with how the world is changing and then being less relevant to the world then one would like.
Yeah, there’s definitely an awareness to Moretz’s character, which I think adds another great layer. She wants to be a serious enough actor to be part of this play, but she’s an active participant in her celebrity.
Yes. Initially when I wrote the screenplay, it was only the character of Juliette who was ambivalent. Meaning in the sense that Maria Enders was both Juliette and not Juliette. But in the end, the same thing happened to the other characters. Kristen became Valentine and not Valentine. It’s a movie where it’s not a problem to see the actor through the part. Usually you try to erase the actor and hope that your audience only sees the character and the emotions injected in the role. But here you can have it both ways. You can watch the character of Valentine, but at the same time you never lose perspective that it’s Kristen Stewart playing her. She’s playing with her own authority, commenting on herself. So it’s part of the film and same thing about Chloe. She’s obviously not Jo-Ann Ellis but she could have been Jo-Ann Ellis. She knows actresses who are shallow and complicated like that. So again, the three of them have both those layers.
[Editor’s note: then we went on a long tangent about the shutdown of what should have been Assayas’ next picture, the crime movie “Idol’s Eye.” You can read more about that here: Olivier Assayas Talks The “Painful Horror” Behind The Shut Down Of ‘Idol’s Eye’ With Robert Pattinson & Robert De Niro]
It’s a shame, but at least you have this picture. I look forward to whatever you’re doing next. Oh, and by the way, congratulations on Kristen Stewart winning the César award.
I was happy her work was recognized. She’s brilliant.
“Clouds of Sils Maria” opens in limited release on Friday, April 10th.
Bonus: An hour of Assayas interviews, some with Kristen Stewart and Juliette Binoche from the Close-Up podcast.