During an unforgettable, four-day stint in Paris earlier this year that HeyUGuys were fortunate enough to be invited to, amidst the various interviewees, one stood out; Olivier Assayas. The director of pictures such as Carlos and Something in the Air, was there to promote his latest endeavour, the forthcoming, satirical drama Clouds of Sils Maria.
His enthusiasm, and fervour is infectious, as the filmmaker speaks with a certain eloquence (and rather impressive understanding of the English language) about his latest production, and in particular, of supporting lead Kristen Stewart.
Stewart plays Valentine, the assistant to the globally recognised actress Maria Enders, played by Juliette Binoche – who has been approached to tackle the very same play that first made her famous, except this time in a different role, leading her to confront a part that is unsettlingly reflective of herself and her current situation. However, in spite of the fact this feature works as a vehicle to showcase the remarkable talent of the French superstar Binoche, is was indeed Stewart’s more subtle turn that caught the filmmaker’s eye.
“I first saw Kristen in Into the Wild as a teenager and I was struck by her, she was amazing, she stands out.” he said. “ I saw her in The Runaways and I believed in her. I didn’t like the film at all, but she was genuine, she was real. So now I read here and there that people are surprised at how good she is, how they didn’t imagine it – for me, I never questioned the fact she was the greatest actress of her generation. To me, it was always completely clear she was an amazing actress. But I had no idea she was that good, I was amazed by some of the stuff she did. Which I really discovered in the editing because it’s very subtle. She does tiny things, she’s a master of her craft. I loved her, I loved what she was doing, I just didn’t realise until the editing room how extraordinary it was.”
Assayas does admit, however, that initially he had Stewart down for the role of Jo-Ann, a young, American diva who is to star in the play alongside Binoche, taking on her former part – a role that now belongs to Chloe Grace Moretz. However it was actually Stewart’s idea to try something a bit different.
“When I started working on the film and imagining who would be who, I first imagined Kristen as Jo-Ann, which is closer to the fantasy we have of her – but in the first conversation I had with her, she said that the character was boring for her, it was too close,” he continued. “She didn’t feel at ease with it, and asked to be considered for Valentine and I hadn’t thought of it, honestly. And I told her I was already discussing the role with Mia Wasikowska, but it stayed with me, and at some point I realised, actually she’s right. The part of Valentine will give her the possibility to do something she’s never done, to be in a position nobody has seen her in before, so I understood why it was exciting for her. It came from her, she understood it before I did.”
Assayas’ films, by their very nature, tend to be slow-burning, pensive affairs, studies of character, of society. His latest is no different, and while he’s evidently aware that having Stewart take on a leading role potentially opens his film out to a whole new audience and demographic – it’s not one he’s expecting to be entirely receptive.
“They will hate it,” he laughed. “Maybe a fraction of them will like it, but they’ll be horribly bored. It’s difficult to access that Twilight audience, because they’re so young. They wouldn’t be interested in a movie like this. They’ll be aware it exists and they’ll see photos, but they’re more interested in the tweets than the film.”
“The film was inspired by Juliette Binoche, the film is based on our relationship,” he explained. “We’ve known each other for a very long time, we started together in the mid-80s when I wrote Rendez-vous, and it was the film that made her famous, when she was about 20 years old and I was a young man myself and my first major screenwriting credit. So we started together but it took us 25 years to finally make a film together with Summer Hours, and she was only on set for around 10 days. It was great and we loved it, but it was frustrating, so we knew we had to make a proper movie together, one that is centred on Juliette, so that’s more or less how Sils Maria came to be. It was a film inspired by Juliette and then given back as a gift to Juliette.”
The film takes a somewhat meta, self-referential approach to the film industry – and a sniping look at the lack of opportunities for actresses of a certain age, which Assayas admits is a very prevalent issue within the industry – albeit not one that France is particularly guilty of.
“It’s not a film about ageing, it’s about dealing with time – which is a completely different thing. Maria is not an old woman by any standards, she has a career ahead of her and great things to do. But she’s not a young woman anymore, so it’s about dealing with closing chapters and opening a new one,” he said.
“Of course time passing is cruel on actresses, they have their faces blown up on huge screens, and you have fans scrutinising every wrinkle, so it’s tougher for an actress than a normal human being. But then, in France a lot of the greatest actresses are old and doing their best work. But that’s also French film culture, we’re lucky in that sense. Possibly the greatest is Isabelle Huppert, and she’s not exactly a teenager. Filmmakers write great parts for her and she does more or less what she wants. At the core of this film, is that there is a way of coming to terms with time.”
Finally, in regards to Assayas’ own career, it seems to be the opposite to that of his protagonist, leaving behind the French film industry where he feels so at ease, for a more prosperous endeavour in Hollywood – but he tentatively explains that when dealing with a film of this ilk, it’s always difficult to get that treasured green light.
“There is a movie that’s pretty close to happening. But is it going to be my next film or the one after? That’s still up for debate.”
And finally, when quizzed as to whether Stewart’s fellow Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson may be a part of the project, he merely said, “Yes, yes he is.”
Clouds of Sils Maria is released on May 15th.