Perhaps the most incredible thing about Juliette Binoche acting in a film by Olivier Assayas is that, until Summer Hours in 2008, it had never happened before. That it took so long for these two titans of contemporary French cinema to shoot something together is particularly surprising for a number of different reasons, chief among them that a) Binoche has worked with a broader selection of great directors than any other living actor, and b) Assayas had a hand in scripting Rendez-vous, the 1985 André Téchiné film that cemented Binoche as a bonafide star.
But good things come to those who wait. Clouds Of Sils Maria is such a strikingly singular film in part because of how it takes full advantage of all that’s transpired since the two like-minded artists first crossed paths. In Summer Hours, Binoche was a small piece of a comparatively sprawling cast; in Sils Maria, on the other hand, Binoche embodies a complex caricature of her own career, playing the lead role in a project that wasn’t just written for her, but is also about her.
Binoche is Maria Enders, an internationally famous actress whose age is pushing her up against the fringes of her celebrity. At the behest of a hotshot theater director, Maria has reluctantly agreed to perform in a revival of the play that first put her on the map as an ingénue, a pas de deux about the sexual power games between a seductive twentysomething named Sigrid and her middle-aged boss, Helena. The catch: This time, Maria will be playing Helena. With her faithful assistant (Kristen Stewart) in tow, Maria retreats to a remote cabin in the Swiss mountains in order to prepare for the part. Existential hijinks ensue.
Evoking the self-reflexive delirium of Assayas’ Irma Vep, Sils Maria effectively projects the psyche of an actress against a dizzying hall of mirrors. Binoche may not be playing herself (Maria is less of a pseudonym than she is a proxy), but the film couldn’t exist without her legacy. Assayas eagerly mines her career in order to illustrate how the past is always present in one form or another.
Assayas and Binoche were on hand to present the film at the New York Film Festival last fall, where The Dissolve took advantage of the rare opportunity to get Assayas and Binoche together in the same room and discuss how they got here, what they think about each other, and if they think Kristen Stewart was able to learn anything from being on set with them.
The Dissolve: Your films, particularly Irma Vep and now Sils Maria, bring to mind the same quote by [film theorist] John Orr: “The past appears as present in filmic projection by virtue of the immediacy of the image. This immediacy is a poetic affirmation of the presentness of the past unique to the medium.”
Olivier Assayas: That’s a beautiful quote. It relates to other movies I’ve made, like Carlos or Something In The Air, because I think that when you’re making a period piece, you should make it in the present tense. The great thing about cinema is that you can. A lot of period pieces are bad because they represent the past as the past, and when you start doing that you’re just wrong, you’re completely misguided. Sils Maria is unlike Irma Vep. Irma pVep was a comedy about cinema, cinema theory, and filmmaking. It was about the discrepancies we have between the fantasy we have about the history of cinema cinema and the reality of how movies are made, and it’s looked at by a very candid eye, by which I mean Maggie [Cheung]’s perspective as she was kind of discovering French cinema.
Sils Maria is completely different. It’s not a meta movie, it’s not a movie about cinema—it’s not even a movie about theater. It’s a movie about very basic human emotions, which have to do with time passing, the perspective you have on your past and so on and so forth. It’s seen through the eyes of an actress, but ultimately she experiences it more vividly because she’s an actress, because she has to deal with it for a part. She’s involved in creating and re-inventing a character, and she has to face emotions that eventually in real life she would be able to escape. So at the end of the day this film is really more about universal humanity. Of course it deals with the present and the ironies of how the world is changing and how the world changes around you during your own lifetime.
The Dissolve: Sure, but the film is undeniably self-reflexive. You’ve said that this film is about Juliette Binoche. Was that a strange burden for you?
Juliette Binoche: I love burdens. [Laughs.] They allow you to find the lightness in something. If you don’t have the burden, you don’t have the challenge of transformation. But I loved what Olivier said earlier about emotion because I really feel that’s what an actor has to do: not identify with the emotions, but go through them so that you transform them. And then you have a better knowledge about yourself. That’s what my character is facing, that it’s so hard sometimes to go into the worries of the world that we all have inside of us. What I love in a film is to be able to see the cost of a creation, to see that you’ve gotta face your demons and find a lightness going through the dark stuff inside. At the end of the day it’s the courage that takes you through things that makes you realize that you’ve done something to yourself.
The Dissolve: Hearing you say the word “lightness” in that context I can’t help but think of The Unbearable Lightness Of Being and the idea of eternal recurrence, which is so central to Sils Maria. Do you feel that the roles you play speak to one another, as they seem to do for Maria Enders?
Binoche: Well, the difference between me and Maria is that Maria cannot detach herself from the past, she’s crystallized her success and happiness to a moment which is related to the recognition she received from the world for a role, and her relationship with the director whom she was working with on it. I personally don’t hang on to the characters I play, because that’s my nature. I like the present more than anything, and I probably transform the anguish of dying and getting old and being abandoned into being so present so that I don’t have to deal with it. [Laughs.] I don’t want to feel the vertigo of the past or future, I just want to be in the present time to make it special. That’s why acting is such a gift for me, because it obligates me to be in the moment between “Action!” and “Cut!”, because you make it into a world beyond space and time and feel eternal in that specific moment. That moment is a jewel. Afterwards it’s a different story, how you go back to your reality! [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: [To Assayas] I don’t mean to put you on the spot, but you said in a previous interview that you think [Binoche] is a more interesting actress when she acts in English because she is less self-conscious than when she’s speaking French—
Assayas: Well, okay, there’s many layers to that. I think that using the English language gave the opportunity to Juliette to have a kind of distance, to be both herself and not herself. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think this movie would have been something very different in French.
The Dissolve: It’s part of the text of the film, this dialectic between the two languages.
Assayas: Yes, of course, of course. I thought that also this movie was the opportunity to give Juliette the kind of part that she hasn’t had in English-language films. I’m talking about the texture. The best thing you can give to an actress is the opportunity to do something new. I think also that what I have in common with Juliette is that we both come from independent French filmmaking and we have both tried to find our way outside of those borders. I kind of knew that if we were going to meet somewhere that it had to be in a movie that had an international texture to it and would deal with what it means to be transnational.
The Dissolve: Do you agree with that assessment about your self-consciousness?
Binoche: I love acting in English. It cuts me off from my past, from my mother tongue. So there’s something about freeing yourself. I also find it difficult because it means that I have to work more, in a way, because I have to forget about the language. Making English sound natural really takes a while. And the way that English works is very different from French. You emphasize words that are saying what you really want to say, whereas in French it’s the reverse. Camille Claudel was probably the most freeing film I’ve done in French, because even though I had learned the letters and it was all written, there was something about working on her words that was meaningful to me. Also, in French scripts the writing is quite literary, but for Sils Maria Olivier gave us a lot of freedom and told us to change whatever we wanted to change. So in that way it was freeing, as well.
The Dissolve: Being bilingual, or trilingual, or whatever the hell you are—and exercising it so dynamically—has been such an integral part of your films, Certified Copy of course being the first that comes to mind.
Binoche: Olivier said once to me that “Foreigners speaking English is like a new language.”
Assayas: Oh, yeah. When you talk in a new language, you speak differently and you say different things.
Binoche: Yeah, I was complaining to Olivier that I didn’t have a coach on this film, and I’m still very pissed off about that. [Laughs.] Just kidding. But it was hard just working by ear, because once you shoot it’s stuck that way forever. Well, not forever, but for a while!
The Dissolve: There’s a feeling that Maria is very anxious about whether or not Val thinks that she’s a great actress, but for the audience, the actress playing Val is the only one with an onus to prove her worth as an actress. You’re Juliette Binoche, whereas Kristen Stewart is in an earlier part of her career, and there’s a really interesting tension that results from that. Was the audience’s awareness of your celebrity and Kristen Stewart’s celebrity something that you were explicitly trying to use?
Binoche: It’s interesting, because a journalist I met told me that Olivier said I was showing off as an actress to Kristen, which I found interesting because it was probably true, but at the same time I felt like I was not consciously doing it. [Laughs.]
Assayas: I would not have said “showing off!” I said that, somehow, you—
Binoche: I was pushing her!
Assayas: You were pushing her. You were constantly showing her things that could be done in film, things that an American actress is not aware of.
Binoche: Right, because I could see her potential!
Assayas: That’s what she was interested in. I would say that the central reason why Kristen was there is because she wanted to work with you.
Binoche: And I wanted to work with her as well.
Assayas: In a certain way, she knew that you understood things that she wanted to learn. She wanted to learn from you how to be free as an actress, and you pushed her in that direction.
Binoche: I wanted to point her compass in that way, to provoke her in silence as well as playing differently and in different ways so that she would listen to it in a more surprising way. But she knew what we were doing, actually, and was amused by it, so it was all a triangle. Meanwhile, coming back to your question, it was something about acting, so there was the play in the play.
Assayas: But to me, something that was very important that Juliette brought to this film... The key element in the film is that Juliette is playing someone who is similar to Juliette, but not herself. She’s using who she is. I’m using what she is, meaning her past and what the audience knows or imagines of her. And what happens is that it contaminates the whole film. All of the sudden you see Kristen as Kristen and you see Chloë [Grace Moretz] as Chloë.
Assayas: Even in the shift of perspective, because obviously Kristen is playing a character who is commenting on Kristen Stewart, but it’s a movie where you never lose consciousness of who the actresses are, and in the end that’s a very important element of the film. But that’s something I only realized gradually.
The Dissolve: Early in the film, a character tells Maria, “Because you were Sigrid, only you can be Helena, now.” But I think it would be more accurate to say that she can only be Helena because she was Sigrid. She can only play this older character because she has the experience of playing the younger one.
Assayas: I think both perspectives are right. It’s more interesting to play an older person if you have been that very character when she was younger. To me, the matter of age is less relevant than the fact that it’s one human being through time. So, yes, someone who does not know Sigrid, who has not embodied Sigrid, would approach Helena as an older woman, but someone who has been Sigrid knows that being Helena involves having been Sigrid, and having absorbed the emotions of Sigrid.
The Dissolve: [To Binoche] I’m curious about how [Assayas] directs you on set. I know that Robert Bresson is a very important figure to him, and Bresson’s direction was rooted in physical action, rather than communicating about the emotion of a particular moment. Is his approach similar?
Binoche: Olivier, do you want to answer that?
Assayas: No, you should answer. It’s more interesting if you answer it!
Binoche: What I really enjoyed in this experience is that there was a tremendous trust, and in that way a love of not knowing what was going to happen. It’s very special, because it’s an equilibrium of being there and not trying to put your hands on everything. So you actually get together with the camera and the actors, and Olivier is giving some structure in terms of blocking, but it’s kind of open as well. And when we shoot, we haven’t rehearsed—well, we’ve very rarely rehearsed—so the first take is like a rehearsal and we see how we get together. So as we’re going we’re changing things slightly, but Olivier is trusting, and also saying “Let’s give it another try, let’s give it another try.” Although, I remember once he said something to me quite strongly, and I was very surprised because I was not expecting it. It was the scene where I’m having dinner with Hans, the actor who was my character’s former lover, and there was a moment where Hans said something and I laughed big like “HA HA HA HA HA!” And Olivier said “No! You can’t laugh like this!” You remember that one?
Assayas: [Laughing.] Yeah, I remember.
Binoche: I think, you know, it’s a taoist way of trust that things will come together. I think it’s like a Hou Hsiao-hsien way of making it lift by itself more than trying to attack it.
Assayas: Sure, sure. It’s like what was written behind the throne of the Emperor Of China: “Not doing.” Something like that. I think that the idea is to let... let...
Binoche: [Begins singing “Let It Be.”]
Assayas: To let things breathe, to let things happen by themselves. I’m more than happy to discuss my film, but ultimately I think that words put limits on reality, that’s what they do. So I’m very, very cautious of what I say to actors because I know that they are listening. I think that the words I will be saying are not going to expand the possibilities, they are going to narrow the possibilities. So the less I say, the better. You don’t theorize psychology when you’re making movies, that’s just the worst way of making movies. You let things happen, and if they are a little bit off you kind of re-channel them in the right direction, but always by using invisible things.
Binoche: Also, it feels by a certain point, once you do five takes or 10 takes or however many it needs, that you let go of the scene because you know that it went where it needed to go. With Olivier and Kristen I felt very much that it was that, that we had to stop the scene because we knew that it was there. Because if I feel like I can give something new, or add another note, or take something further, he would let me do it. And if Olivier asked for another take, then I would know that there was something else there, and that it was my cue to go and search for it.