Critic-turned-director Olivier Assayas is one of French cinema’s most important voices. After a run at the iconic magazine Cahiers Du Cinéma, where he became known as a specialist in Asian film, Assayas transitioned from writing about movies to making them, initially establishing himself as a screenwriter. His stylish sixth feature, Irma Vep, became his international breakthrough. In the nearly two decades since, Assayas has alternated between studies in globalized paranoia (Demonlover, Carlos) and intimate dramas (Clean, Summer Hours). His latest, Clouds Of Sils Maria, falls squarely into the latter camp—the story of a famous actress (Juliette Binoche) who holes up in a house in the Swiss Alps with her assistant (Kristen Stewart) to prepare for a play.
Assayas spoke to The A.V. Club by phone the week before the film’s U.S. release.
The A.V. Club: There’s a play within the film, which is fictional, that is reminiscent of The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant. Your earlier film Irma Vep has connections to Beware Of A Holy Whore, a different Rainer Werner Fassbinder film. Is that a conscious return?
Olivier Assayas: You know, it’s a very obvious reference. I mean, when I was writing Clouds Of Sils Maria, I knew that I needed to inject a play that the character of Maria and her assistant would be working on. The first title that came to my mind was The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant. And initially I thought I would be using straightforward excerpts from the play, but it really did not work, because it would have broken the pace of the film, and it was too complex to handle in any kind of efficient way. So I decided, “Okay, I’m going to write my own version.” My own simplified, sped-up, brutalized version of the The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant.
I suppose the reason I was attracted to the play is a) because there are not so many modern plays which involve those kinds of dynamics between a younger and an older woman, which could echo the relationship between those two women, and b) the inspiration that Fassbinder has been for me. I’m a writer. Writing is such an essential part of my own process, so of course the great filmmakers I relate to are directors like [Ingmar] Bergman or Fassbinder because they have been both great playwrights and great directors. They have always been models for me. I kind of have the desire to write for the stage. I think I would have more fun writing for the stage than directing for the stage.
AVC: Why do you feel like directing for the stage wouldn’t be as fun?
AS: Because the writing stays. The directing fades at the end. You’re doing something, and then you pack up the set and it’s gone. The writing stays, and it can be staged again anytime. It’s always something I’ve had in the back of my mind that I would like to do one day.
AVC: Especially in the midsection, there’s a rawness to the scenes between Juliette Binoche’s and Kristen Stewart’s characters. I was wondering what the process of working with them and developing the rapport between their characters was like.
AS: We shot those scenes last. It was like the last week of shooting or something. We had a lot to do during those last six or seven days. We had one location, and it was really just those two actresses, and basically nothing else. It benefited a lot from the fact they had already known each other for a few weeks. They had been working together. They had grasped the part, they understood the dynamics of their relationship. So, we took it to a point where we could really let everything loose in a certain way. Those scenes are all about the interaction between them—it was about giving them space to reinvent, to recreate the characters’s situations.
There were even scenes that were meant to be melancholic that turned into comedy scenes. There was a moment when I was more like a spectator of what was happening between the two. It was really about pushing the scene as far as we could. I was doing longer and longer takes. The last couple of scenes, we filmed versions that were basically like one continuous seven-minute shot. Within that framework, there’s a lot of space for an actor to appropriate a scene. It was really all about trying to help them go as far as they could in terms of where they wanted to take it.
AVC: To come back to the Irma Vep connection, the movie opens at the calling-people-back end of the film business, which isn’t something that gets depicted a whole lot. Was the industry a point of inspiration, or something that came later after you decided you wanted to do a film about an older woman and a younger woman?
AS: What I wanted to do was a film not so much about aging, but about time passing and how to deal with it. In a certain sense, it was a present to Juliette. An actress has anxieties about age and about how it affects her, and the film is a way of saying you can somehow master it. You can somehow appropriate it. It doesn’t have to be a burden.
One essential element for me was to show how actors don’t just recreate believable characters. I mean, they have to deal with those emotions. You can’t play a part and get it right without going through the pains and the suffering of a character. What I was trying to show is how the work of actors is trying to understand fellow human beings. What they do is try to find within themselves the strength to understand other people and to go through emotions that they would not necessarily have to deal with in real life. We all have to deal with time, we all age, we all have a number, but we don’t make a fuss about it. We don’t have to confront it straightforward, whereas an actor has to confront it straightforward if only because his face will be projected on a huge screen and scrutinized. For me, the film is very much about the human side of the art of acting.
But, of course I wanted to put it in a context that was modern, not make a movie that would deal with some 19th century or mid-20th century vision of actors and actresses. I wanted to inscribe it within a believable world, which is the world we all live in and which is changing so fast. I knew that as any actress—even if she’s very sophisticated, classically trained, has a high notion of her art—she has to deal with the bullshit of industry. She has to deal with the everyday hard work of trying to survive and protect her image. She is bombarded with questions and demands, because that’s what the media is about. So, again, I wanted to show her confronted by the actual questions the actress is confronted by in the modern world.
AVC: Speaking of the modern world, there are a lot of references in the film to fictional superheroes and young adult sci-fi-type movies. It seems like you were always pretty up on the bright, colorful stuff of genre filmmaking, but the characters in the film have an odd relationship to it. It’s where most of them make their money, but they’re quite dismissive.
AS: When I write a discussion between Maria and Valentine about blockbuster superhero movies, I’m on both sides. I agree with both. I am, in a certain way, close to the character of [Maria] because I come from the same place. I’m the same generation. I have a certain ironic distance toward that material.
But then it’s also a kind of filmmaking I’ve been fond of. I mean, I enjoy it as a viewer. I don’t think I would touch it as a filmmaker, but I can certainly understand the fun one has with that material, not to mention the admiration I’ve always had for the writers and artists of the comic books. Once in a while, I still do read X-Men comics. I’m just fascinated by the complexity of the narratives and the ambition of the storytelling, which is way beyond whatever they’re doing in the movies. The movies are ultimately an oversimplification of those comic books. They are much more primitive, even if they are very sophisticated in terms of their visuals. I can enjoy it, but I can also analyze it.
AVC: It’s interesting to me that Binoche is playing a film actor, and someone who is associated with a very particular role and is worried about aging, but that the one device you avoid is showing her films.
AS: When I see that in other movies, I am perplexed. It’s very difficult to make it work. I think that when you use clips from another movie within your own film—I’m not sure why, but it doesn’t feel right because you have [too much of] a sense of the artificiality of it.
In this film, I’m using invented movies, YouTube clips, and an actual black-and-white short film by Arnold Fanck. I think it’s kind of interesting to blur the lines, to create a situation where those images could be real. I’ve been asked quite a few times, “Does the Arnold Fanck movie really exist? Did you shoot it?” Of course it exists. Of course I did not shoot it. But I was happy that the questions could be asked, because it also means you have the same doubts when you’re watching the YouTube clips.
AVC: This film is almost entirely in English. You’ve always worked within the framework of French and European financing, but often with characters who have to use English as a shared language.
AS: It’s about making movies with transnational characters, people who live in some kind of globalized culture, which is neither a good nor a bad thing. It certainly says something about the modern world. I feel like I’m depicting a world ultimately very few filmmakers are interested in depicting. You are either in the U.S. and you’re making American films, or you’re in Europe and you make local films, or mock-American films. You don’t make movies that deal with how there is a very interesting international culture [that exists] artistically, intellectually, and, of course, financially and economically.
The language for that transnational culture happens to be English, the English I’m speaking, something that’s not my first language, which allows me to communicate with people from other cultures. I think it’s a very exciting space. It’s been extremely inspiring for me.