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