Today Clouds of Sils Maria begins its first Chicago run at the Landmark Century and the River East 21. To my taste, it’s writer-director Olivier Assayas’s most invigorating feature since Demonlover (2002), and like that film, it suggests a continuation of his early work as a film critic, commenting on particular filmmakers and the current state of cinema as a whole. Juliette Binoche stars as an actress with similarities to herself, a world-renowned thespian who’s also appeared in trivial Hollywood blockbusters. The movie finds her creatively and personally frustrated in middle age. Her closest relationship appears to be with her young personal assistant (Kristen Stewart, who recently won a César award—France’s equivalent of the Oscars—for her performance), and even that relationship is contentious. Assayas uses the characters’ feelings about art to develop how they feel about each other. In one of the most provocative sequences, the two realize how differently they see the world as they debate the cultural merits of superhero movies, perhaps the first serious discussion of such to appear in an art film.
Binoche’s character starts to reflect on her own life after she’s cast in a production of the play that launched her career three decades earlier. In this regard, the movie suggests a spiritual sequel to André Téchiné’s 1985 drama Rendez-vous, which Assayas cowrote and that starred Binoche as an aspiring actress. I asked Assayas about the relationship between these two films when I got to talk with him for an all-too-brief 15 minutes a couple weeks ago. This dovetailed into a discussion of film acting and how directors develop a moral vision of the world.
Ben Sachs: Did you envision Clouds of Sils Maria as a companion piece to Rendez-vous?
I kind of made a point of not watching Rendez-vous again [while working on this], though I’ve seen it a million times. Certainly the basis of Sils Maria has its roots in Rendez-vous. It’s very much about revisiting that film, which is ultimately the thing we have in common, Juliette and myself. It was really the starting point of our careers, it’s something that bonded us and made us friends ever since. So, when I started imagining what film I could write for Juliette today, instantly I thought about the perspective of time, and that brought me back to Rendez-vous. What do we remember? How did it echo in our own lives?
Ultimately I wanted Juliette to revisit what she was going through when we were making that film, but from the other side of the mirror. That film was so much about the path of an actress. How do you end up being ready for a major part and, more generally, for something that’s been your calling? Here, it’s more about revisiting that [experience], how you look back on it and try to find the same passion after time has transformed you.
How do you feel about Rendez-vous today?
It was so important for me. I learned a lot from André Téchiné. I was a very young screenwriter [when he recruited me]—I didn’t have any serious credits. I’d been writing about movies and had directed some short films, but my experience of writing screenplays had been fairly conventional. I’d been learning how to structure things in a very rational way. André challenged anything that we envisioned—we would transform our structure, reinvent it as we moved on. I also learned from André how to write for actors. I learned that a scene might have a dramatic value for the story, but it’s nothing if there’s nothing for an actor to do within it. That’s something I hadn’t grasped before—I was still a kid at the time.
Starting with Hotel des Amériques (1981), Téchiné began moving the camera almost constantly in his films. That would seem to anticipate your own filmmaking style.
Yes, I suppose that there’s a connection. The way André developed is that, for a long time, he would shoot with two cameras. He would have two cameras tracking simultaneously, which would create very complex logistics on his sets. Now he doesn’t do that anymore. I don’t know if I learned that from him, but he was certainly an inspiration.
I think it helps the actors to have long takes, since they have more space, more time. You end up getting something stronger and more personal from them. So I’ll structure a scene by shooting a very long, complex shot that covers most of the action. Then I’ll do a countershot that picks up whatever wasn’t in the initial tracking shot. André always shot the shots and countershots simultaneously, but I usually shoot them separately, because, in my taste, that allows for more complexity when I intercut.
It’s something very present in the style I used for Sils Maria. We were shooting very long takes, which I would break to go from one actress to another. For instance, in one of the last scenes at the chalet, most of what ended up in the film is a seven- or eight-minute take that moves around the whole house and garden and so forth. But I didn’t keep it as one seamless shot, because what was going on between the actresses was very strong. Both of them were great, so I ended up cutting.
This method would seem to ensure that the actors have many opportunities to surprise you.
Oh yes. The more space you give to your actors, the more control you give them. They can reinvent the film, and I can be the first spectator of it. I need to be surprised and somehow excited by what I see when I’m working with actors. I don’t want to hear the lines from my screenplay, I don’t want to see something that I envisioned before. I want the actors to appropriate it and make it their own.
Sils Maria addresses a lot of things that are happening in culture today, but it never offers a definitive stance on the zeitgeist. I love that long two-shot of Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart in the bar, talking about superhero movies. They have different ideas of what these films mean culturally, but you don’t favor one perspective over the other.
I believe that movies should be about questions, not about answers. I don’t have answers. It would be great if I did, but . . . I think one of the best things you can do as a filmmaker is just show the world in its complexity. And the more you show complexity, the closer you are to something that everybody relates to. In terms of how you react to blockbuster movies or just how the world is changing, I think most of us would say, well, there’s good and bad. I like it and I don’t like it. I understand it, but I don’t understand it.
The way blockbuster filmmaking is evolving seems to mirror the development of global capitalism as a whole. There are fewer and fewer blockbusters that are more and more expensive and that are pushed into more and more markets. The fictional play that the characters are performing in Sils Maria is obviously a critique of capitalism, showing how these characters’ personal relationship, in terms of domination and submission, is affected by who’s more powerful in the business world. Yet the play, which was written in the early 1980s, seems to be critiquing an earlier, less invasive model of capitalism, when you could still talk about individuals rather than corporate entities.
The way I imagine [the play’s author] is that he was a political writer who was very much of his time. He was a writer from the 70s. He was like a [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder, but who had become an old man and had caught up with Guy Debord and people like that. He’s a misanthropist, someone who’s very critical of modern society, the image culture, and the media culture. I suppose he represents the years when I grew up, the sort of artistic figure we looked up to then.
What kind of old man do you think the real Fassbinder might have grown into if he hadn’t died in the early 1980s?
That’s a difficult question, and I often ask myself that. In the 90s and the 00s, I became convinced that there were three very important missing filmmakers: Fassbinder, Francois Truffaut, and [Pier Paolo] Pasolini. I think that if the three of them had grown up to be older filmmakers, the fate of cinema would have been slightly different. They were all very strong moral figures, and the presence of such strong moral figures structures filmmaking as a whole. And I think epochs can be defined by the absence of individuals. German cinema just wouldn’t have developed in the same way if Fassbinder was still around, just like Italian cinema would not have been the same if an artist like Pasolini had been around longer.
I started making movies after the death of Francois Truffaut, but I would have loved for him to have seen my films. Even if he didn’t like them, I wouldn’t care. He’s certainly the one French filmmaker whose judgment would have been important to me, and I missed it.
This brings us back to Sils Maria—it’s very much about the influence that the deceased playwright has on the characters.
I think it’s just that I’ve made a lot of movies about mourning. This is one of them.