Past and Present: Olivier Assayas on Clouds of Sils Maria

Olivier Assayas's new film centres on a middle-age movie star (played by Juliette Binoche) who's reassessing her place in the showbiz world. The French director discusses this new feature, and working with Binoche and her co-star Kristen Stewart

Feature by Philip Concannon | 14 May 2015

For much of the past four years, Olivier Assayas has been stuck in the past. His epic television series Carlos told the story of the notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal, and he followed that up with Something in the Air, a semi-autobiographical tale of teenage political activism in the 1970s. From the moment it begins, Clouds of Sils Maria announces itself as a film about the way we live now, with Valentine (Kristen Stewart) juggling mobile phones and an iPad as she tries to coordinate the busy schedule of Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), the movie star to whom she is personal assistant. Clouds of Sils Maria finds Assayas engaging with contemporary culture in a very direct way, but even so, his film still feels connected to the past.

In 1985, Olivier Assayas wrote the screenplay for André Téchiné's Rendez-vous, the film that offered Binoche her first starring role and gave his own career a huge boost. In the three decades that have elapsed since, Assayas and Binoche have remained close friends and collaborated on his 2008 masterwork Summer Hours, but that wasn't enough for the actress, who decided to take the initiative in 2013 and called Assayas out of the blue, asking him to write something that they could shoot in a two-month window that she had coming up in her busy schedule.

“It was a bit of a surprise, because it happens once in a while that you discuss possible films with actors and say things like, ‘I would really like to work with you... I admire you so much... I would love to write something for you’ and it never happens,” Assayas told The Skinny when we met in London last week. “With Juliette it was based on the fact that we had history, that we had known each other for a very long time and had strangely parallel careers, in the sense that we were both attracted by the notion of stepping out of France and making movies that had a richer dialogue with international film culture. In this case, I felt confident that I had the elements to build a film fairly early in the process. I spoke with Juliette and called her back a week later and said, ‘OK, Juliette, I will try to do this,’ but I only called her back because I sensed I had two or three elements that I could articulate.”

One of those elements is a fictional play called Maloja Snake, which is credited in the film as giving Maria Enders her breakthrough as a young actress. In the original production, she played a manipulative temptress who seduces and then destroys an older woman, and when we meet her in Clouds of Sils Maria, she is being offered the chance to act in the play again – this time playing the senior role. The offer, combined with the sudden death of the playwright, has a destabilising effect on Maria, and as she decamps to a Swiss mountain retreat with her assistant to rehearse, the text of the play begins to mirror their own increasingly fraught relationship.

Assayas has built a film around an actress preparing for a role before, in his 1996 film Irma Vep, but here he wanted to dig deeper into the anxieties of what it means to be an actress and to fully exploit the persona of his star. “I wrote Clean for Maggie Cheung, I wrote Boarding Gate for Asia Argento, and in a certain way I wrote Irma Vep also for Maggie,” he says. “But Clouds of Sils Maria is specific in the sense that I feel I am going further, while the other movies were a bit on the surface. Here I am just dealing with it. I'm not just using Juliette or just being inspired by her, I'm trying to understand her, to explore what she is doing and understand the process. I'm trying to articulate my fantasy of her with something that's universal, one person trying to connect with emotions we all share.”

“I like to film reality when it's beautiful, when it's ugly, when it's unpleasant, I don't care” – Olivier Assayas

This project required a great deal of trust from Binoche too, not only to expose herself in this way but to work in the freewheeling, improvisatory style that Assayas prefers. “I believe in instinct in movies. I hate rehearsing and I don't like table reads or whatever,” he explains. “But I think everything should be focused on bringing the actors to the point where they can make something happen in the smoothest and least-directed way. What I knew of Juliette from my previous experiences is that sometimes she can feel a bit stuck within what she has originally envisioned. It is not her first language so I thought she would be scared of moving away from what she had memorised and the work she had done with the dialogue coach. I didn't know if she would move away from that comfort zone, but what made the film work is that I saw on the very first day that she did not care, and that it was a completely different Juliette than I had known before. She was incredibly open and patient, and happy to be trying new things and taking risks.”

This is also new territory for Kristen Stewart, who underplays beautifully as Maria's assistant and whose chemistry with Binoche is the film's driving force. It's a far cry from the world of Twilight for the young actress and Assayas has some fun with her blockbuster credentials, having Valentine defend the value of these movies as Maria mockingly dismisses them. In fact, her defence of mainstream Hollywood is so strident, we wonder if Assayas himself harbours a secret desire to break into the world of CGI superheroes?

“No, it's another world – it's completely another world,” he says, laughing at the suggestion. “I mean, it's a world where I am very happy to be a viewer, but I have no envy or anything like that. When I see those movies I hardly know what the director has been doing. I mean, I guess he has been giving some overall mood and supervising various crews, it's just a different job, and far too technical for me. I'm not ideological about it, in the sense that I can break realism if it works for me, but basically I like filming reality; I like filming real people. I like to film reality when it's beautiful, when it's ugly, when it's unpleasant, I don't care.”

In any case, who needs all those special effects when you have Sils Maria? Assayas discovered this spectacular location while on a hiking holiday with friends, and he uses the distinctive mountain landscape and its mysterious cloud formations to add an otherworldly dimension to his film. “What was exciting for me was the fact that the thing that should be the simplest aspect of the film was bringing the most strangeness, mystery and menace to the story,” he explains, “because this landscape has inspired writers, poets and philosophers throughout the 20th century and the end of the 19th century. It is filled with ghosts, and the ghosts are very present in the story – it's kind of a ghost story, you can put it that way. It's not so much the ghosts in the story, in the house, the ghost of Wilhelm, or whatever, it's the ghosts floating around this beautiful and peaceful landscape.” Clouds of Sils Maria may be very much a 21st century film, but once again we find an Olivier Assayas film being haunted by the past.

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Clouds of Sils Maria is released 15 May by Curzon Film World