'You Make Your Own Path Within the Maze': An Interview with Olivier Assayas

Talking with the filmmaker behind Clouds of Sils Maria about meta-relationships between his movies, unconscious influences, and the beauty of acting.

Still from "Clouds of Sils Maria," mK2 Films

There’s a certain shared affinity when you talk to a filmmaker who used to be a critic: A sense that a film can and indeed ought to be scrutinized for meaning prevails, free from the usual hand-wringing about creative intuition and what, if anything, a movie can ever really be about. Olivier Assayas is no exception. His career as a critic, before he began to make films of his own, was exemplary in its own right, and his insight and acumen haven’t remotely diminished. When talking about his own work, he can somehow adopt the perspective of someone assigned to write a review of it. He speaks the language.

That’s fortunate, because his latest film, Clouds of Sils Maria, is dense enough to need a guide through the thicket. The story of a middle-aged actress, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), and the young assistant (Kristen Stewart) with whom she comes to spar, Clouds is as much about what goes into acting as it is about directing movies—about the artistic process and what’s involved in sustaining artifice and erecting layers of meaning. (One sequence even involves a heady discussion of superhero movies and their manifold virtues—just the sort of critical thinking Assayas can’t help but bring to bear.) I sat down with Assayas after the film’s North American premiere the Toronto International Film Festival last year to get to the bottom of Sils Maria


Do you think of this movie as a satire—of Hollywood, or of filmmaking generally?

Hmm. No, I don’t think I was interested in satirizing. I’ve been lucky enough not to have to deal with Hollywood. I’ve been able to make my movie in a gentler environment, that way, so I can observe it with some kind of distant objectivity. And it looks ridiculous! [Laughter] No. Often, when you’re representing a modern actress, and the issues a modern actress has to face, you can’t really escape representing celebrity culture. It’s become part of the job. Twenty years ago it was one, seedy, not that exciting part of movie culture. Now it’s become part of what a modern actress is. Do I think that it is great? No, but basically, you know, nobody asks me! [Laughter] I’m just representing it as a fact of life. I’m representing an actress, so I’m representing that an actress has to deal with that stuff, and then I think it’s hilarious, honestly. I show it with very little distance. I show it more or less as it is. It’s slightly exaggerated to make it funny, but not that much.

Did you see Maps to the Stars?

Yeah, I did. I love it—I’m a fan of David Cronenberg, I think he’s a genius. He’s an amazing filmmaker. But the difference between him making a satire and me making a satire is that he actually has to deal with Hollywood, so he has legitimate grievances. [Laughter] He has grounds for complaint.

I think if the film approaches satire it’s most apparent in the epilogue, which is focused more closely on the movie business and the kinds of scandals that can engulf people. Had you planned on doing an epilogue like this from the beginning?

Not really. I knew I wanted the film to end on stage, because you’re playing around with the idea of production, and at some point you have to see it—it all leads to there. But I had no idea exactly what was going to happen until at some point I realized that I liked the idea of everything being swept away by the tsunami of the Internet scandal, and everybody being dragged in it, including Maria herself. You know, she’s following the news on her phone. Everybody, all of a sudden, they start again their conversation about the play, about how they’re going to approach it, and this and that, and all of a sudden something blows up in their face and all their constants are gone, and everything is channelled into this PR disaster.

It’s interesting how arbitrary the scandal seems—it has nothing to do with the work they’re doing creatively. Do you see this kind of thing as interfering with the creative process? Is it just an obstruction?

What I am saying is everybody’s dragged into it. Maria herself is checking the news on her phone, and the director, he hates it, but at the same time you feel he’s excited by what’s going on around him, and even when he’s confronted with the journalist, who would be interested in that kind of play, and interviewing him, so he has to be some kind of serious journalist, he’s also questioning him on the basis of celebrity culture. What I think is that whether we want it or not, we are dragged into it. All of a sudden, that was the one last piece missing in the film, so when I understood that I wanted to take the film there, I wrote it real fast. I also liked the idea of, all of a sudden, history speeding up. Maria belongs to another culture, where you have time, and you can do things your way, and the ending is completely out of control.

Was the film ever conceived as, not quite as a sequel, but as a contemporization of Irma Vep?

It was, yes—I realized at the late stage that there was a connection. I mean yes, of course, maybe in the sense that it’s two movies that I made that are based on the actual actresses playing themselves, so I just realized—it was an unconscious process. But then, it’s very different from Irma Vep also in the sense that it’s not so much a movie about theatre, or cinema, or the techniques of acting, or the paradoxes of real life and fiction. At the core of this film, it’s about one individual struggling to understand another individual. It’s really about the beauty of acting—what is the beauty of acting? The beauty of acting is making huge efforts and often suffering terrible pain to be able to reproduce the emotions of fellow humans, of finding within yourself the pain that you would not necessarily have to deal with in real life.

The age of this particular actress is important.

Yes, of course—the character of Maria, played by Juliette, arrives at an age where, in terms of her career, she has to turn a page. It’s a new chapter. Something else begins. You don’t have to—I mean, you can protect yourself. Here, the story is that she is at this crucial moment, and she cannot protect herself. Not only can she not protect herself, but she has to deal with it in the worst possible way, because she has to go back to when she was herself a teenager, or a very young actress, and she has to deal with the fact that she despised the older actresses. She gradually understands that she cannot escape the fact that at one moment, a younger actress is going to look at her in the way she herself looked at older actresses in the past.

That aspect of the film reminded me of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

Which I love, but I haven’t seen for ages, so you have to refresh my memory.

The main theme of the film is that it follows the life of this guy, and the idea is that when he’s young, he’s cocksure, and he thinks of his superiors as out of touch. And then, as the film he progresses, he ages, and eventually he realizes that that’s how the younger generation sees him now.

Oh, yeah, that’s exactly it! But I saw the film, like, in the mid-’80s...

Maybe it was an unconscious influence.

Yeah, I admired it very much, and when I was a young film writer I interviewed Michael Powell. I wrote a big piece about his movies. So it’s there.

A lot of people have been using Persona as a point of comparison. Was that more deliberate—or perhaps simply unavoidable?

It was not deliberate. With movies, you have a few archetypes, and Persona is one of the archetypes. If you want to deal with what an actress is, and the process through which an actress deals with a part, or get at the very fact of being an actress is, you are on Persona territory. But you know, I worship Bergman. I published a book of interviews with Bergman. He’s been, to me, such an essential figure, and Persona is one of my favourite movies, so yes, there must be something of Persona lurking.

The discussion of the superhero movie is one of the best scenes I’ve seen in ages. I love that it both takes that kind of text seriously and also says that you can’t help but laugh at the same time.

What I enjoyed when I was writing and shooting that scene is that I felt I was on both sides. And I felt that most of the audience wouldn’t be on both sides, which is basically what makes it funny, in a certain way. Juliette is completely right, and Kristen is completely right. What is at stake is also the difference in generation. You have one object, which, you know, I have fun making a parody of—I had so much fun doing that—but ultimately they are looking at the same object. They are both right, and they have completely different visions, which is what this is about. One generation—the world has changed, and the reference points are different, and what is obvious for one generation is not so obvious for another one. What I am saying is that it inscribes time much more powerfully than the wrinkles on the face.

Yes, and later on in the film, Kristen Stewart says, “the play is an object, and it changes perspective depending on where you’re looking at it.”

It’s such an abstract line, and when I wrote it, I said, “Oh my God. Can I put that stuff in the mouth of an actress? How will Kristen deal with it?” And Kristen is so incredible—at just making obvious, as clear as day, abstract ideas. I was honestly amazed, because she has a few moments where I thought, in terms of my writing, “This is exactly what I want to say, but am I not being too literal? Am I not being too serious with theory?” No—she just makes it natural.

Oh yeah, it sounds like she’s just articulating her only ideas. I think it’s a really great performance. Someone told me the other day that she was originally supposed to be the other character? The younger actress played by Chloë Grace Moretz?

She could have been. It was something we discussed, but she wanted Valentine. I offered the other part, at one point, and she basically said, “No, but no thanks.” I would have been okay with her, but it would’ve been a completely different movie. This movie, it’s like a play. Based on who plays a part, the dynamics change completely. If Kristen had played Jo-Ann, the actress, I think she would’ve been a much darker and much sadder character, in many ways. But then the youth of Chloë—she turned 17 when we were shooting—makes it just some goofy character. She has some depth, but at the same time there’s distance, there’s irony. Ultimately, a lot of things fall into place, in terms of the narrative through the casting, through the difference of a few years between Kristen and Chloë. They both have something like six years difference, which is huge at that age. All of a sudden, it’s two completely different layers—there’s no overlap.

There’s also the idea of real-world corollaries. In the scene, in particular, in which Valentine is defending Chloë’s character, there’s an element of self-defense. It’s Kristen Stewart defending Kristen Stewart. Was this dialogue written with her in mind?

No, it was not written with her in mind; absolutely not. But I think that she really had fun with the notion of dealing with celebrity culture, but from this slightly oblique angle. I think that if she had played Jo-Ann, it would have been a bit too obvious. Here, I think it’s so smart of her, because she can have the right distance. She can distance herself and have that really smart perspective of it. The thing is that it also brings another layer to the film, in the sense that this is a movie where the actresses don’t blend into the characters; they remain visible, in the sense that you, watching this movie, using whatever you know or Juliette Binoche, or whatever you imagine of Juliette Binoche—same thing about Kristen, and same thing about Chloë. Even the slight distance that Kristen takes from the character and from those issues is made funnier by the fact that we are aware from the distance. It’s never completely Valentine speaking. It’s Valentine, and it’s Kristen, and it’s the same about Chloë. Chloë, she’s the age of that character; she could be one of those starlets, except she’s smarter, so she’s able just to catch it, and to parody it. But still: she could be like that. She could have been like that. It was an option to her.

It’s interesting that in the construction of the meta dimension of the play-within-the-film, you resist the urge to create obvious one-to-one relationships. It’s a little more complex than that.

It’s complex, and also what makes it, you know, hopefullyentertaining, is that’s it’s fun. It’s a game. It’s a game, and the film obviously has dark overtones, because it deals with time passing, ageing, whatever, but then there is also something playful within the way we try to deal with it, and it’s a game where the audience is a part of the game. The way you make your own path within the maze of whatever the film is is part of the film.

Your last film, Something in the Air, dealt with youth culture at such a specific cultural moment, and was immersed within that cultural moment. This film deals with youth too, but partly from an outsider’s perspective: the perspective of someone facing up to middle age.

Yes, but I did not see it from that perspective; I saw it really from the perspective that I had been doing two movies in a row that were set in the 1970s, that were both period pieces, and specifically, when I did Something in the Air, it’s a movie based on memory. It’s about what we do: how we can transcribe memory and the energy of youth into images, and reconnect with it, in one way or another. But here, I was just so happy it was contemporary, so that I could catch up, and represent life, how it was changed. I could represent the importance that our relationship with social media, with the Internet, with whatever means of communication has taken over our lives, in a way or another. I’m not saying that in any kind of critical way; to me it’s just a fact of what today’s world is about, and a fact that I have to deal with, we have to deal with.

You’ve dealt with technology in Boarding Gate, too. But here it seems more naturalized, and part of daily life.

I think it’s a movie where you have more technology than in other movies, but it’s a movie where you have less technology than in real life! If you want to be completely realistic about it, we are non-stop tech now.

I always find it fascinating, every time you make a new film, to see that film as itself, but also how it relates to your other work.

Oh yeah! To me, it’s the privilege of writing, in a certain way. I’ve been able to write my movies, and make more or less the movies as so. In the end, what I’ve been making hopefully has some coherence as a whole. I think that my movies all interconnect in ways conscious or not conscious. It’s like how you were mentioning, you were connecting this film with Irma Vep—I think even in terms of viewing Irma Vep, the fact that I’ve made this film adds something to Irma Vep, or Irma Vep adds something to this film. I’ve always thought there was that kind of circulation between the characters in my movies.

I think some of my colleagues have been dubbing the Kristen night-drive scene as the Demonlover moment in the movie. What was the thinking behind that scene? It looks amazing.

Well, you want the legend, or you want the reality?

Hey, it’s fine if it was arbitrary. You can tell me.

Okay, well, I wrote the scene as the one moment where we have this tiny glimpse into Valentine’s real world, which is completely different. It’s just a tiny window that opens and closes. She has a life. It’s eventually sad, but there’s the whole world there. She’s not just Juliette’s assistant. So I kind of needed that moment, and I was happy to express that moment with images, because of all the talk, and the relationships, and things, so I thought, “Why not deal with them in completely visual terms? Let’s make them strong, as strong as I can.” So all of a sudden I knew I wanted to use music, and loud music, at that moment. But then I filmed her in the car, I filmed the fog, I filmed the car in the fog—I like fake fog, obviously—and then I had second unit stuff. The guy shot the road driving up the hill in real fog.

And then you just trumped it up a bit in the editing room?

I tried to cut it in a fairly conventional way, but I thought it was deadly boring. I thought the second unit guys who had been filming the fog had not done such a great job, I thought that the fake fog looked fake, I thought that whatever Kristen was doing was great, but then not explicit enough; so I said, “Okay, why not put everything together, and just do this tiny experimental moment in the film.”

There’s one shot in particular—it’s a superimposition that makes it look like Kristen is standing in the middle of the road, in the fog. You feel like it’s a charged moment, and you wonder what’s going to happen here.

I feel like the whole thing just gave tension, and for some reason I knew after the driving scene there were the clouds—that was always written in the screenplay—but somehow it took us to the cloud moment in a much more interesting way than whatever I had imagined initially, so it kind of happened in the editing room.

It also feels of a piece with the later scene when they drive home a little drunk from the casino; it’s another element where you feel like something is going to break. And then of course it does.

Yeah, when Val disappears, basically their relationship has finished. It has gone all the way; there’s basically nothing left to say.

Was it important to you to have the self-annotating description of the end of the play right before that, to sort of cue the audience into reading it properly?

The thing is, at some point, when you have all the right elements, and they are in some kind of right order, all of a sudden you have all this weird wiring that happens, and some it you control, and some of it you don’t control. Some of it is conscious, and some of it is not conscious. I think that I put things into motion, and then the film has a life of its own. Some things I had anticipated, and some things I had not anticipated, but they all make sense.

Do you feel like your films have become more amorphous, in that way?

It’s, erm … maybe, yes. Yes.

Is that something you feel like you’ve been gravitating towards consciously?

I don’t know … in many ways, I think in terms of how I approach cinema, it’s more and more … there is certainly a connection between Something in the Air and this film. In a sense, there’s an element, there’s a specific visual poetry that comes to the forefront, more than in other movies I’ve made. Ultimately it’s a matter of confidence. After you’ve made a few films you know what kind of works. You know what you can get away with.

How tightly scripted was the film?

Fairly tightly. Of course, the play had to sound like the play, so the writing had to be very precise.

Were you thinking of the Fassbinder movie when you wrote that play?

Yes, well, I mean, I initially wanted to use the real Fassbinder play, so that was my first idea, and then I realized it did not work that well. I tried for like ten minutes, and after ten minutes I realized that this was completely wrong. [But] the canvas of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant was very much what I wanted, because I knew that out of all the modern plays involving two strong women characters, it’s the one that deals with the dynamic of the younger and older, with disturbing and troubling overtones. So I wrote my own version of it.

Did you write a whole play?

[Laughter] No—one day Chloë asked me that: “Have you written a whole play? Because if you’ve written a whole play, we should stage it!” [Laughter] I said, “No, no, I have not!” Too much work. I could have done it, but no, I’ve only written that. The screenplay was very long, and I had constantly to find ways of making it more compact, so I trimmed everything. There was long and tedious work trimming the screenplay.