With the help of her old friend Olivier As­sayas, French actress Juliette Binoche takes on her most per­sonal film role,

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile - writes Michael Bodey

French direc­tor Olivier As­sayas cowrote the film that would fea­ture Juliette Binoche’s break­through role: Ren­dez-vous. The pair have re­mained friends since the 1985 film as As­sayas has wan­dered through a dis­parate re­sume of French dra­mas, in­clud­ing his own break­through Irma Vep, Sum­mer Hours and the Golden Globe-win­ning TV minis­eries Car­los.

As­sayas’s lat­est film, Clouds of Sils Maria, was not in­spired by his friend Binoche so much as de­vised from the ground up with her in mind. Yet it could have ended in­glo­ri­ously. She plays Maria, an actress stuck in the Alps with her as­sis­tant Valen­tine (Kristen Ste­wart), pre­par­ing for a re­vival of the play that made her a star, al­beit now in the role of the older fe­male.

As­sayas has been bold in cre­at­ing a film that is not just about Binoche but about a par­tic­u­lar phase in the ca­reer of many screen stars: when an actress finds she is no longer the in­genue or the tem­pes­tu­ous star. It’s about age­ing.

As­sayas sounds mildly re­lieved to re­count that Binoche “had fun mak­ing this film”. “I’ve known her for ages, and I’ve never seen her like this be­fore — hav­ing fun, happy to be do­ing what­ever she was do­ing,” he says, adding af­ter a pause: “[This] is not com­mon with her.”

Clouds of Sils Maria deals with a mid­dle-aged ac­tor re­gard­ing, with some ret­i­cence, her le­gacy while deal­ing with an in­dus­try that is al­ways look­ing for­ward and, tellingly, al­ways look­ing younger. In this in­stance, the younger comes in the form of the pre­co­cious star Jo-Ann, played by Chloe Grace Moretz.

Clouds of Sils Maria presents an in­trigu­ing snap­shot of Binoche, or at least a ver­sion of her.

“She kinds of plays with it,” As­sayas says. “She plays with the bor­ders, and has fun be­ing a lit­tle bit of her­self and a lit­tle bit some­one she could have been and is not.”

Binoche un­der­stands the sit­u­a­tions in which Maria is placed, he says: the doubts and ques­tions. Deal­ing with those is­sues in a dra­matic way al­lowed Binoche to cre­ate some dis­tance be­tween her­self and her char­ac­ter: “[It makes it] doable, be­cause oth­er­wise it would be painful.”

This is not his first film fo­cus­ing on an actress. In 1996, Irma Vep, As­sayas’s first ma­jor film out­side France, fea­tured Maggie Che­ung play­ing a ver­sion of her­self.

“A lot of my movies have had women leads,” he says. “I sup­pose that’s the way it’s hap­pened since I started mak­ing movies, more or less, so I fin­ished ques­tion­ing it and just ac­cepted it. “Irma Vep ques­tioned cinema and how it re­lates to its past but didn’t ex­plore the process of the ac­tor as ex­plic­itly as Clouds of Sils Maria does.

“Here, work­ing with Juliette al­lowed me to be very spe­cific be­cause of course I used a lot of what I know about Juliette, how she func­tions, how she ap­proaches a part, so it’s a much more re­al­is­tic por­trait of the process, even if the film has a very strong fic­tional el­e­ment and a cer­tain ab­strac­tion about it. But it’s still very spe­cific about the job and how she works.”

Binoche’s per­for­mance and by­play with Ste­wart, best known for her role as Bella Swan of the Twi­light se­ries of block­busters, makes the film feel like a cham­ber piece com­pared with some of the direc­tor’s more ex­pan­sive films. Al­low­ing Ste­wart to bounce off Binoche is a good thing for the Amer­i­can. She is a sur­pris­ing as­set.

“I crossed my fin­gers but I’ve al­ways been a fan,” As­sayas says. “I’ve al­ways been con­vinced she po­ten­tially was a great actress, so choos­ing her was an easy de­ci­sion, but the thing is she went be­yond what I imag­ined.”

As he watched the rushes, As­sayas was amazed at how Ste­wart un­der­stood the char­ac­ter and its small­est nu­ances. The con­trast be­tween the char­ac­ters speaks to the con­trast be­tween the ac­tresses. Off screen, Binoche liked to re­hearse; Ste­wart did not. On screen, Maria is brittle; Valen­tine is care­free. Off screen, La Binoche em­braces her sta­tus as French cinema roy­alty; Ste­wart re­mains that pout­ing, most re­luc­tant of film stars. On screen, Maria strips blithely for a dip in a Swiss lake; Valen­tine re­mains chastely clothed.

As­sayas ac­knowl­edges the key to the film is the in­ter­ac­tion be­tween the ac­tresses.

“Juliette in some way gave [Ste­wart] some­thing and there was a sort of chal­lenge be­tween the two girls. Juliette is very free, very cre­ative, she’s very in­ven­tive, she tries stuff even if it’s ab­surd. She goes for it and she’s very gen­er­ous.”

Ste­wart learned from that, he adds. She ap­pre­ci­ated you could work with free­dom and spon­tane­ity. “She never re­ally had the space to do that in other movies, so all of a sud­den some­thing opened up for her,” As­sayas says. Ste­wart won a Ce­sar, the French equiv­a­lent of the Academy Award, for the per­for­mance.

Binoche is no less im­pres­sive in a raw role: As­sayas cast her in his re­cent hit Sum­mer Hours; but this was dif­fer­ent. He says his friend needs to feel good within a part and that is aided by feel­ing she’s on the same wave­length as the film­maker. That was eas­ier to es­tab­lish be­cause they’ve known each other for so long and “there is trust, trust go­ing both ways”.

“I was a lit­tle ap­pre­hen­sive be­cause I knew it would be tough for her,” he adds. “I knew in this film she would have to deal with age­ing, with your body chang­ing, with peo­ple see­ing you chang­ing, which are all painful is­sues for ac­tresses. So I thought she would be ner­vous.

“I thought she would have a hard time and it was ex­actly the op­po­site. I think she trusted the part, she trusted me. She trusted the way we ap­proached the ma­te­rial and she went for it.

“She never ques­tioned it, she had no doubts, she was avail­able to try any­thing and it was a com­pletely new ex­pe­ri­ence for me but I sup­pose it has to do with some­thing we have built, some­thing that has to do with the fact we have this re­la­tion­ship.”

The film comes at an im­por­tant junc­ture in the direc­tor’s ca­reer, when he might rea­son­ably have been ex­pected to be cash­ing in his chips af­ter Car­los, the stunning TV drama about the Venezue­lan ter­ror­ist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez. In­stead, As­sayas has re­turned to small French fea­tures: the 1970s drama Some­thing in the Air and this Ger­man-French-Swiss co-pro­duc­tion.

“I’m not very much a TV per­son,” he says mat­ter-of-factly. He saw Car­los as a “very long fea­ture” meant to be seen on the big screen. He has been pres­sured to pro­duce sim­i­lar ma­te­rial but says it would be im­pos­si­ble to repli­cate be­cause he had “com­plete cre­ative free­dom”.

“I had no idea I could get away with all that on TV, so Car­los grew out of this ab­so­lute free­dom they gave me, which was un­heard of, and ev­ery time I have calls from TV peo­ple ask­ing me if I want to do this or do that, I ask will they al­low me to work this way (with) full cre­ative con­trol and they say, ‘Of course not’, and ba­si­cally that’s the end of the con­ver­sa­tion.”

Clouds of Sils Maria was a dif­fer­ent beast al­to­gether. Mak­ing it, he says, was cathar­tic.

“It’s about com­ing to terms with [loss] so hope­fully it helped Juliette. It cer­tainly helped me,” he says, laugh­ing shyly.

“I think it’s how you man­age to deal with time as op­posed to car­ry­ing time on your back, as a bur­den.

“It’s about how to ac­cept that in life once in a while you have to open new chap­ters. You’re leav­ing stuff be­hind but it also al­lows you to con­sider what’s im­por­tant is the fu­ture. I think for Juliette it was an im­por­tant mo­ment in terms of her ca­reer.”

Clouds of Sils Maria is open na­tion­ally.

Juliette Binoche and Olivier As­sayas, above, have been friends since work­ing on Ren­dez-vous in 1985; Binoche with Kristen Ste­wart in Clouds of Sils Maria, left

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