Time, sharing pain, and theater versus cinema.
The Clouds of Sils Maria is French filmmaker Olivier Assayas’ fifteenth full-length feature. It stars the unlikely pairing of Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart—an immediate clue that the external realities of the film matter just as much as their fictional counterparts. Binoche is Maria Enders, a famous actress in her late forties, who is going through a divorce, and selling her apartment. Stewart is Valentine, a twenty-something, smart, and jaded personal assistant. Their co-dependency is revealed within the first five minutes. On their way to Switzerland by train to honor Wilhelm Melchior, the lauded playwright and Maria’s mentor, Valentine learns that he has died. When she breaks the news, Maria looks at her with shock and fear, eyes searching for support.
Melchior’s death throws many things into perspective, not least the public’s perception of celebrity, time, and nostalgia. Maria is asked by an up-and-coming director, Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), to perform in a revival of Melchior’s Maloja Snake––the play that made her famous at age eighteen––but in the role of the older woman. She accepts hesitantly, and begins to rehearse her lines with Valentine, whose understanding of the text has a hard reality that Maria finds frustrating and upsetting. Their friendship begins to mirror the tension and sexual ambiguity of the characters, and they start to fall out of sync. Before they meet the Hollywood starlet Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), who is to play the younger woman, Maria Googles her. Valentine doesn’t need to: she’s aware of the petulant public appearances, unstable relationships, and silly Tinseltown movies, but interprets Jo-Ann’s persona as complex and subversive. Maria is amusingly unconvinced, but her patronizing rejection of Valentine’s reverence masks pride, and an awareness that she is disconnected from the contemporary world.
Assayas’ own presence as writer-director filters through the fictional Melchior. He co-wrote 1985’s Rendez-Vous with filmmaker André Téchiné, which launched Binoche’s career. (The story followed a young woman pursuing her dream to become an actress in Paris.) They worked together again in his 2008 film Summer Hours, when she reportedly encouraged him to write a script based on their shared history. His response was to make a film based on the passing of time, self-perception, and acceptance. He chose Switzerland, he says, because there is “a unique sense of a landscape that is inhabited by ghosts. You feel the presence of the artists and writers who have spent time there at the end of the 19th century—Nietzsche, Anne Marie Schwarzenbach, Segantini, Rilke. It is so untouched, it is very preserved. You sense the presence of the past.”
I spoke to Assayas in New York, in October 2014. In February of this year, Kristen Stewart became the first American actress to win a César, the French equivalent of the Oscars, for her supporting role as Valentine.
Alex Zafiris I’ve seen the film twice. The first time, I responded very viscerally. The second time, I realized how pragmatic it also is. There are two truths coming through at once. And, in the same way, Wilhelm Melchior is there, and not there. There is a distance, and no distance.
Olivier Assayas This movie is meant to provoke a very basic emotional response, in the sense that it deals with a very universal issue—time passing, aging—that we all have to deal with in one way or another. It gradually becomes a hotter issue, but, at any time in your life, it is something you have on your mind. It is something we all share, and the film creates that echo. It is, also, in its own way, a comedy, so you react to it on that level, too. Once you leave the theater, you think of the complexities, the hall of mirrors, and then, when you watch it again, you understand how it’s done. I knew I was dealing with a subject matter that was not complex in its own right, but that generated complexity. You have Juliette playing Juliette; you have the relationship with the movie I made with her ages ago, which echoes within. I put in motion a lot of simple elements that come with a lot of stuff attached, and it starts bouncing in all directions, somehow out of my control. But, the reality of the writing is that I tried to keep it as simple as possible. Three acts. It is a film with a very simple structure.
AZ And, a million subjectivities. The character of Maria seems quite frightened.
OA Of course. She's very vulnerable. It is a moment in her life; she's involved in a divorce; she's on her own. It is only her work, and she feels lonely. She’s a character who is floating. We don't see where she lives. We understand that she's selling her flat because of her divorce. All of a sudden this disaster falls upon her, the death of Wilhelm, who had been her mentor. Someone who had a very specific, symbolic importance for her, is now also gone. So, she's an orphan at fifty years old. She has to deal with that. Plus, her past comes back to her. She's at a very difficult moment in her life, she has to reinvent herself, and she knows that accepting that role is a key to reconciling and finding some grounding again. She knows it’s going to be painful, and that’s why she resents it so much. Sometimes, she’s angry with the whole process, because she knew from the start that it was going to be horrible. The play is forcing her to go to places she does not want to go, and, sometimes, she's just plain angry with this.
AZ She tries to quit.
OA At some point she calls her agent, and she wants out. He says, “Well yeah, it’s complicated, you've signed a contract, it’s a big disaster…” She has initiated a process. Once you are in the process, you can't really go back.
AZ Even if you stop.
OA You can't really stop, not just because of the material consequences, but because the process has already started within her. She has ups and downs. Sometimes, she's kind of interested. Ultimately, she ends up finding and reconciling with the part, with herself, and with the very idea of acting, because she knows that this is just one more part. It’s really interesting, but whenever I discuss the film, there's a moment no one really notices, which is very important, before Valentine disappears. Maria has drinks with Jo-Ann and her English boyfriend at the hotel. Jo-Ann says something like: “It’s very brave of you to be facing that, putting yourself into that situation,” and Juliette says, “Well you know, after all, it’s just a part.” That’s really the moment when it all falls into place. She’s facing this younger girl, she knows she's the one she will have to deal with, and she feels that she’s okay. She can handle it, she can do it, she can try. That's really the moment when her perspective changes.
AZ Does it have anything to do with the fact that Valentine is so passionate, and intelligent, about the role? Her stance is very life or death.
OA The thing is, Valentine is a good person, very grounded, very straightforward. She can see things. The dynamic is also such that she says things that ultimately Maria knows. She's there to verbalize them, to be blunt about them, for you, the viewer, and to remind Maria: This is how it is. If you don't want to do it, don't do it. Stop whining about it. That is exactly what Maria needs at that point. There’s also a certain degree of ambiguity. Is Maria attracted to Valentine? Is there something actually going on between them? Or is it just that she's using Valentine to become the character of Helena, to understand Helena, and to understand the desires of Helena? It is really on the border.
AZ Valentine does say something, at one point, about the attraction of two women with the same wound.
OA Yes, that is Juliette's writing. It is a line she added herself. She called me three months before the shoot—I was doing something completely different—and she said “Oh, do you mind, the way you wrote it, I understand it, but maybe there's a better way to say it.”
AZ So that line was an afterthought.
OA I said, “Yeah sure! If that feels right, we can use that, of course.”
AZ I have read several times before about actors talking about roles and ambiguous sexual energy, that people are sexually attracted to others who have the same wound. This attraction doesn’t necessarily need to be materialized, or consummated.
OA Yes. Sharing pain often is the strongest bond.
AZ Both Maria and Klaus say the same thing as well: All that matters is the show. Though, they arrive at that conclusion from different angles.
OA Yes. Klaus is also ambiguous in his own right. He's very clear on why he wants to stage this play, and so on, and so forth. But, gradually, you also realize that he's not completely immune to celebrity culture. You feel that it excites him. The minute things start blowing up, (snaps fingers) he's there.
AZ I'm not sure that I agree with Maria when she says that this is typical of his generation, though. I think it depends on the individual.
OA Yes, and no. It’s not exactly a matter of generation, but today, artists are self-conscious. She's saying that nowadays artists do market themselves, much more than they used to. And, today, to be an artist, you have to be a salesman.
AZ Your choice of Kristen is interesting.
OA It is kind of obvious, in a certain way. She was the best option. You start thinking of a part, then you are told, “No, sorry. She's not available.” Then you ask the second choice, and the third choice. Casting is a complex process. Here, she's by far the obvious choice for it, and I felt extremely privileged that she would do it. It is not about me choosing Kristen. Why I'm attracted to her is obvious to anybody who sees the film. What is miraculous is that she was attracted to this part, and that she was ready to spend two months of her life in the middle of nowhere in Europe, doing a weird European indie film, compared to stuff she had been doing. It’s very different; it’s not her culture. She knows the movies, but has no idea how those movies are made. She's really this LA girl, and all of a sudden she's on her own. I mean OK, she brings a friend, an assistant, but to the middle of nowhere. We were shooting in Leipzig and then we moved to Engandine and then we were in South Tyrol. I mean, it’s a four-hour drive to the next airport. She was there for the whole shoot, and she didn't travel back. I thought she was very courageous. It was really brave of her to take on that part, given the conditions.
AZ She speaks very highly of it.
OA She's very smart. She's very young, and it’s fascinating to be able to film an actress at the moment when she's becoming aware of what she can do. You felt that she was learning stuff, absorbing stuff, and all of a sudden she realized that she had a much bigger range than whatever she had imagined. It’s really exciting just to document it.
AZ Do you give a lot of direction?
OA I give zero indications. Nothing. To me, it's all physical. It is all about getting the right actors. They understand the part. They're not idiots. They're going to sit down, and they're going to work. They don't need my explanations. The problem is that actors listen to directors. They respect them. So, when you say something, it becomes gospel. In a certain way, this limits their imagination. I'd rather say nothing. Then, when we shoot, I fix whatever I don't like. I channel it as softly as I can in a direction where, maybe, there's something to gain. But, usually, if you are working with the right people, their instinct will be correct. They will bring something of their own to the character, and to the situation. Ultimately, there will be some kind of human truth to what they are doing.
AZ The chemistry between Juliette and Kristen is great.
OA That's stuff you bet your movie on, but you have no proof it’s going to happen. Until you are there, and they are in front of you in character, you don't know if it’s going to happen.
AZ But, they trust you.
OA They do trust me, but the thing is that they also like each other. They could have been, I don't know, jealous of each other. They could have been uneasy. It was totally the opposite. Juliette had fun working with Kristen, because she's unlike any actress that she's ever worked with, and, I think, Kristen was excited, because she felt that she was learning stuff from Juliette. So, they had a very good dynamic.
AZ Could you tell me a little bit more about your choice to use theater versus cinema. Cinema is the only space where a lot of this could take place.
OA If Juliette had been rehearsing a film, it would have been very different. They would have had very different conversations. I don't think you work on a movie character the same way you work on a stage character. When you’re doing stage, you have a lot of lines, and you have to learn these long scenes. Just having those lines sink in is a huge job on its own. With movies, a lot of actors don't like to learn their lines. They are happy just to read them once, and somehow reproduce them in their own way in the shot. Ultimately, that’s what works best. But, in theater, that's not an option. Theater exists in its own right inside the lines. Directors are important in theater, but still, it’s all about the actor and the text.
AZ Is this a film about youth?
OA It is a film about how we deal with time. What is fascinating in art, and echoes our experience of life, is that every generation has to reformulate the most basic things. A love story, a marriage: You tell that story two years ago, and it’s a different film than the movie you would make today. It is completely banal, completely conventional, et cetera. But, still, there's always…Because it is universal, because it is so embedded in our experience of the world, and of life. It changes the same way as the landscape changes around us, or the sky. I am making a movie about something that is both very simple, but is also broad: Time, aging, how we do it, and what we do with it. I’m trying to deal with it in very contemporary, very present terms. We do not age the way our parents or our grandparents aged; we don’t have the same issues. Juliette is fifty years old, and she's not an old woman. She has possibly her best work ahead of her. It is not about the decline of an aging actress. It’s more about: What do you do with time? What do you do with the passage of time? We don't have to bear its weight in the way the previous generation had to bear that weight—I’m not sure why, but that's how it is. It is a fact; time is passing; we change. And, what do we do with that? How do we come to terms with that?
AZ It is an energy that you have to maintain. It is your mood.
OA Exactly. As Juliette says at one point: “I’m allowed not to be old, as long as I don't want to be young.”
The Clouds of Sils Maria opens in New York at IFC Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on April 10.
Alex Zafiris is a writer based in New York.