A FRENCH TURN FOR A STAR

Juliette Binoche, Kristen Ste­wart and direc­tor Olivier As­sayas muse about what’s real and what isn’t in the film.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Mark Olsen mark.olsen@la­times.com Fol­low on Twit­ter: @IndieFo­cus

Turns out putting to­gether one French film­maker, one in­ter­na­tional grande dame and two young Amer­i­can stars makes for light­ning in a bot­tle. “Clouds of Sils Maria” is an elec­tric com­bi­na­tion of self-aware­ness and emo­tional ex­plo­ration told via a story that touches on time, celebrity and me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal phe­nom­ena.

Writer-direc­tor Olivier As­sayas and actress Juliette Binoche have some­thing of a his­tory, be­cause As­sayas’ first pro­duced fea­ture screen­play was co-writ­ing An­dré Téch­iné’s 1985 film “Ren­dez-vous,” which made a star of Binoche. They would not work to­gether again un­til Binoche ap­peared in As­sayas’ 2008 en­sem­ble fam­ily drama “Sum­mer Hours.” Af­ter that Binoche asked As­sayas to write some­thing for her to star in.

He hon­ored her re­quest and came back with “Clouds of Sils Maria,” a slip­pery trea­tise on iden­tity and artis­tic per­sona and the pas­sage of time. Binoche plays Maria En­ders, a fa­mous actress who is about to ap­pear on­stage in a re­vival of the play that made her a star. Yet now she will take on the role of a fad­ing older woman while her for­mer part as the se­duc­tive young in­génue will go to a tabloid-no­to­ri­ous star­let (Chloë Grace Moretz). En­ders’ de­voted as­sis­tant Valen­tine (Kristen Ste­wart) strug­gles to keep her boss on course while also try­ing to main­tain her own sense of self.

“We’re friends, but it’s not like I know so much of her,” said As­sayas of Binoche at last fall’s Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val. “What is Juliette’s day-to-day life? I have no idea. Some part of Maria is based on the Juliette I know, part of it is based on what I fan­ta­size.

“At some point I re­al­ized that one layer of the film was that this is a movie where the iden­tity of the ac­tors is al­ways present,” he said. “Usu­ally in movies you for­get about them, you’re try­ing to erase as much as you can of what­ever the ac­tor is, so that the au­di­ence fo­cuses on the char­ac­ter. Here it’s the op­po­site.”

The film, mostly in English and open­ing in Los An­ge­les on Fri­day, be­comes an in­side-out vari­a­tion on “All About Eve” or per­haps a fe­male-cen­tered ver­sion of “Bird­man,” drawing not only on the char­ac­ters within the drama but also very much on public per­cep­tions of Binoche, Ste­wart and Moretz. The ac­tresses boldly put them­selves, their per­sonas and what au­di­ences know (or think they know) about them into the film it­self. That much Binoche, an Os­car win­ner for “The English Pa­tient” seen re­cently in the big-bud­get “Godzilla,” was not ex­pect­ing.

“I al­ways liked him with­out re­ally know­ing him,” said Binoche of As­sayas while also in Toronto. “So in a way pro­vok­ing him to write and do a film to­gether, it was like say­ing, ‘Here I am. Are you ready?’

“I think he wrote this, and af­ter that it was like, ‘This is my gift, and now you give back.’ ”

Af­ter pre­mier­ing at last year’s Cannes Film Fes­ti­val, the movie went on to a num­ber of pres­ti­gious fall fes­ti­vals, in­clud­ing Toronto, New York and Los An­ge­les’ AFI Fest. Then in Fe­bru­ary, Ste­wart be­came the first Amer­i­can actress to win at the Ce­sar awards, France’s Os­cars, pick­ing up a sup­port­ing actress prize. (Ste­wart has an­other per­ma­nent re­minder of the role — she had a tat­too put on her fore­arm for the film inked for real.)

“The whole ex­pe­ri­ence has opened me up to a world that has been undis­cov­ered,” Ste­wart said re­cently by phone in Los An­ge­les. “There’s a will­ing­ness to risk that you don’t find in Amer­i­can movies. They don’t feel planned, they feel ac­com­plished and dis­cov­ered. It opened some­thing up in me, it was very ex­cit­ing. I’ve been work­ing since I was a kid, and this is fresh and ex­cit­ing and why I love to do it.”

As the film was com­ing to­gether, there was one cast­ing con­fig­u­ra­tion in which Mia Wasikowska was to play Valen­tine and Ste­wart would take on the other role of, in her words, “the su­per­scan­dalous fa­mous per­son” that would more di­rectly play on her back­ground as star of the “Twi­light” fran­chise. Yet once the cast set­tled into place with Binoche and Ste­wart as star and as­sis­tant, things forged ahead.

“There was this re­ally in­ter­est­ing dy­namic be­tween Juliette and Kristen that was com­pletely un­ex­pected,” said As­sayas. “I had no idea it would go that far or they would build on it that strongly. It was some­thing I was a spec­ta­tor of and grad­u­ally en­cour­aged. As long as it didn’t break, let’s push it fur­ther and fur­ther.”

In a scene in a casino bar in the Swiss Alps, Binoche did a spon­ta­neous spit-take at some­thing Ste­wart said; in an­other mo­ment Ste­wart sud­denly touched Binoche’s face in a dis­arm­ingly ten­der way.

“It’s the kind of thing Kristen would come up with and do it once. Never twice,” said As­sayas. “She’s a very fas­ci­nat­ing actress, I must say. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with an actress who has such a con­scious­ness of her body. She has this in­cred­i­ble knowl­edge of her move­ments, like a dancer.

“At the same time she com­pletely opens up and could get into im­pro­vised mo­ments. Which is some­thing that doesn’t come nat­u­rally to her. It’s re­ally some­thing that Juliette re­ally brought out of her.”

In an elec­tri­fy­ing se­ries of scenes that form the cen­ter of the film, Binoche and Ste­wart are re­hears­ing the play at a se­cluded moun­tain cabin. It can be­come un­clear if they are speak­ing as the char­ac­ters in the play, their roles in the movie, or most in­trigu­ingly, as their ac­tual selves, con­fronting the re­al­i­ties of act­ing and celebrity.

In the role of Valen­tine, with off­hand re­marks about teen au­di­ences, were­wolf movies and the craft of act­ing in fran­chise films, there are mo­ments Ste­wart in par­tic­u­lar seems to be di­rectly ad­dress­ing the au­di­ence re­gard­ing her own feel­ings on the con­flict be­tween celebrity and art.

In a sense the char­ac­ter is able to say things that the actress play­ing her can­not.

“I’m not al­lowed to say them,” Ste­wart agreed, “but some­body on the out­side, they’re al­lowed to speak can­didly about some­thing be­cause it’s not per­sonal to them. So they won’t be con­demned for what­ever pro­jected un­grate­ful­ness. You’re stand­ing be­hind some­thing, but it’s very thin, so it’s like, ‘I still think this.’

“And by the way, I had noth­ing to do with the words, they were fully writ­ten be­fore I ever had the part. And Olivier didn’t plan on find­ing some­one who has this per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence with what she’s com­ment­ing on, it just hap­pened that way. You can see in those scenes I’m sti­fling joy­ous laugh­ter.”

That quick­sil­ver sense of cap­tur­ing some­thing rare in­forms the movie all the way through. In a breath­tak­ing mo­ment, Binoche is alone on a moun­tain­side in Switzer­land’s En­gadin Val­ley as the Maloja Snake, an un­usual cloud for­ma­tion, moves through be­low.

It’s easy to imag­ine a film pro­duc­tion wait­ing on a hill­side for days and days for the weather to be just so, though mod­ern au­di­ences may also nat­u­rally as­sume the shot was cre­ated through dig­i­tal ef­fects. As­sayas al­lows there was some trick­ery in­volved; while Binoche feels that in the spirit of the movie it is best to leave some things un­cer­tain.

“I’m not go­ing to re­veal the se­crets of the snake. I’m not re­veal­ing the truth of it,” she said. “You have to stay with the po­etry of think­ing that it’s just the right mo­ment. The fem­i­nine is a mys­tery. It has to be.”

CaroleBethuel Sun­dance Se­lects

Jay L. Clen­denin Los An­ge­les Times

JULIETTE BINOCHE asked Olivier As­sayas to write some­thing for her. He did: “Clouds of Sils Maria.”

Ber­trand Guay AFP / Getty Images

KRISTEN STE­WART be­came the first Amer­i­can actress to win a Ce­sar, France’s ver­sion of an Os­car, for her “Clouds of Sils Maria” role.

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