The majority of Olivier Assayas’s films possess a sheen of effortless cool—alluringly inscrutable plots, ephemeral images, scores by the likes of Sonic Youth and Brian Eno—that would suggest a figure more imposing, aloof, and reserved than the filmmaker actually comes across in person. In fact, Assayas is incredibly warm and thoughtful, pausing for an instant before launching into each loquacious answer. He’s a former Cahiers du Cinéma critic, and his analytical eye for cinema extends to even the most enigmatic moments of his own films, of which there are plenty in his latest, Clouds of Sils Maria. Despite a cast that flirts with the mainstream, including Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloë Grace Moretz, the film may be Assayas’s most layered and cryptically voluble to date, and certainly his most self-reflexive. Following an art-house actress (Binoche) and her personal assistant (Stewart) in a period of seclusion in the Alps, Assayas uses the meditative, two-hander premise to probe topics like celebrity, modern technology, and aging with a sympathetic, tender perceptiveness. He expanded on all of those topics, as well as what draws him to actresses like Stewart and why modern indie rock bores him to death, the morning after the film played at the New York Film Festival.
I’ve always considered all of your films to be, in a way, immersed in youth culture—not just Something in the Air and Cold Water, which are directly about that, but the rest have that sort of punk intensity to them. And then this one is concerned directly with aging, so I was wondering how much of Juliette’s character’s concerns and anxieties about aging reflected your own.
Well, obviously, there are certain connections, yes. If only because, you know, my story is parallel to Juliette’s. It’s not just like I’m projecting things on Juliette. I’m older than Juliette, but still, we’ve lived through more or less the same history. So there are very obvious parallels between her experience and mine. So, yes, I suppose there’s certainly a process of identification. But then, I’m not an actor. I don’t have my face up there on the screen, blown up 20 times. And…let’s say it’s less painful for a man. A lot of the anxieties and insecurities of the character of Maria are, luckily, not things that I have to deal with. But what I do have to deal with is time passing, the world changing—the fact that you go through the different stages of life, whether you like it or not. So, yes, of course, it’s a lot of questions that I have, as basically anybody has. I’m not dealing with anything that’s autobiographically or specific to my experience, I’m dealing with a subject that everyone is concerned with in a certain way and on which we all have our own take.
Obviously the “aging actress” is such an old Hollywood trope, and I think one thing that I really liked about this movie is that Juliette’s character’s personal image, her physical image, isn’t what concerns her. That stereotypical aspect of aging isn’t even an issue here, which is really refreshing.
No, it’s not and I don’t think that the film deals at all with the issue of decline. It’s not All About Eve, where it’s youth against age, or a young actress against an older actress. That’s not what it’s about. Also because the process of aging has changed. We don’t age the way our parents or grandparents aged; it’s a different world in that sense. And if we’re talking about an actress like Juliette, she has possibly her best work still ahead of her. There’s no notion of physical decay. But that doesn’t stop time from passing! That’s still an issue. You still have to accept that it’s happening. The question is how do you perceive it, and how do you deal with it. Meaning there might be a solution to dealing with it gracefully, at least, I hope.
Finding that graceful solution seemed to me to be part of what the film was about. It’s one of very few films I’ve seen that deals with different generations and technologies, especially within film and changing trends in film, in a way that doesn’t seem bitter or reactionary. A lot of that obviously has to do with it being from the dual points of view of Juliette and Kristen’s characters…
It’s not old versus new. Before this film I had made two period pieces set in the 1970s, and it was so refreshing in a way to make a movie which is immersed in modern life where people function the way that we function, with mobile phones and computers and whatever. I think movies aren’t about expressing your personal politics and opinions; they’re about observing the world as it is. They’re about raising questions, but not answering them. So, yes, of course, it’s pretty much in touch with how the world is changing and how technology is changing—especially because it deals with actors who are connected to the media business, or circus, or however you want to see it. It’s interesting, in a sense, that it’s a fact and that you can’t be judgmental.
You were talking in the Q&A about how Juliette sort of had the genesis for the idea, and I was wondering if you could expand on what those initial conversations were like?
We’ve known each other forever; I was the co-writer for this film Rendez-vous which made her a star. We were both very young and it was a huge experience because it was our first real movie experience. So that creates a bond. One day she calls me and says, “Why don’t we make one film together as a dialogue between us, or something like that? Why don’t we take it one step further? We should’ve done it 20 years ago.” I instantly thought she had a point, because there was history in common. I don’t know her, but I know her enough, so I can build something around her as opposed to writing a part that she would then act. Here I wanted her to be able to use her own personality, the person she is, what the audience knows about her. It kind of inspired me; I had a starting point that was solid enough, even if it was challenging, because it’s always difficult to make a movie that is, in one sense big, because it echoes, and in another sense abstract and psychological. It doesn’t give me exactly a fascinating plot. I know what the emotions are.
Casting Juliette as Juliette, in terms of how the audience perceives her, is kind of a thread in the casting of most of your movies. Asia Argento or Kim Gordon, for instance, in Boarding Gate, or Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep. They have their public, celebrity image, which you use to an effect in all of those films.
Yes, it’s always been in the background. Here more than the others it’s in the forefront. It’s basically the subject of the film. But I didn’t realize it until late in the process: the fact that I was using Juliette as Juliette. And then that somehow contaminated the whole film. All of a sudden you were looking at Kristen as Kristen and Chloe playing someone who she’s not, but could easily have been. You know, it’s a movie where you always keep in touch with whatever you know about those individuals, those actors.
You said that originally you were thinking of casting Kristen in Chloe’s role.
We kind of moved back and forth between the two parts. But I think the best approach was using her as Valentine.
You didn’t cast her in a part where you could say, “Oh, there are aspects of Kristen there,” but in a part that forces her to basically comment directly on herself. She has that line about Chloe’s character: “Well, at least she’s not some antiseptic celebrity…”
Right, yes, exactly.
It’s that public perception of her as being sort of aloof because she doesn’t fit a certain definition of starlet.
Right, and those are the sort of actresses that I’m attracted to working with and find interesting.
All of your films utilize music in interesting ways. What’s your process for matching music to a specific film? I wasn’t expecting, like, Pachelbel’s Canon…
I feel like I’m at a crossroads. I’m getting so bored with indie rock, you have no idea. It’s become like muzak. It’s in every single movie. In the most stupid movie you’ll have some hip band to give some hip gloss to it. It’s there in commercials: The plane lands and you have some “cool” alt-folk [in the background]. I don’t want to use that in my movies. In this movie I think I’ve come full circle in the way that I use music in my films. In this film I certainly didn’t want anything hip or whatever. I was not sure what I wanted until, ultimately, the scene with Johnny Flynn in the restaurant where they’re sitting and listening to Handel. I kind of realized, maybe that’s the key. I started looking into baroque music, because that’s what I wanted for the concert at the hotel. I didn’t want romantic music because I think it’s depressing.
I think that’s a direct quote from the movie.
The character says that, but that’s how I feel! I use baroque music for exactly the reasons he’s expressing; there’s something luminous about it. So I started looking for the right piece, and somehow it just became part of the process of making the film. That’s the music I was listening to on my iPod as I was searching for music for that one scene, but gradually I bumped into stuff that I liked and thought, well, maybe that could work with the film. Initially I thought it would conflict with the music in the hotel, but in the end I thought maybe it was interesting to find some kind of coherence, and that’s where I found it.
There’s also that sequence where Kristen is driving to the Primal Scream song, which reminded me of the scene in Irma Vep where Maggie Cheung is freaking out to “Song for Karen.”
Right, right, I thought that worked because I wanted a moment that would be completely different from the rest of the film because ultimately it’s Valentine’s world. It’s a tiny window we have all of a sudden on her world. That’s the music she listens to, that’s her life, and so on. And also because I wanted to have a non-dialogue scene. I thought there was already enough yak-yak in the film and I wanted something that dealt directly with the character of Valentine to be physical and visual and so forth.
There’s this fluidity between the identities of all three main female characters that I thought was really interesting. Maybe it’s just the setting, but it felt like a Bergman chamber play.
There’s definitely the Persona aspect of it. There’s also the Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant aspect of it. It’s stuff that I usually don’t use in my movies. I just hate the notion of relating and quoting from movies, because the language has to be from real life, not from movies. But in this case, what can I say, I couldn’t really stop it. I knew I wanted to make a movie about an actress. I knew I wanted to make a movie about an actress and her assistant. I knew that I was in Bergman territory. But Bergman himself isn’t all that far from the figure of Wilhelm Melchior [the character], so I was kind of quoting him in a sense.
L’amour Fou, the Rivette film, was the other one that sort of jumped out to me.
I actually haven’t seen that since I was a teenager.
I think just because you deal with acting, and the process of acting, in this sort of mythological way. This as opposed to…did you see Maps to the Stars?
Yes, yes, I have.
Superficially, at least, it’s about the same thing, but your film doesn’t satirize or make fun of actors acting.
Yes, but also that’s because David Cronenberg, who is a filmmaker that I immensely admire, has to deal with a lot of the, you know, the worst part of what Hollywood filmmaking is about. He has to deal with that stuff, and I’m sure he suffers from it because it’s painful. You deal with a certain degree of stupidity that can be unbearable. It kind of distorts your perception. I’m lucky enough not to have to deal with that stuff, so I can watch acting and the relationship of actors to cinema in a more positive way.
You’ve said before that you feel the need to shake off the influences of French film history. Do you still look back to Nouvelle Vague directors at all as influences? Godard sort of had a similar obsession with projecting onto celebrity personas, like Molly Ringwald in King Lear.
Eighties-era Godard has been a big influence, certainly. I mean, Godard has always been a big influence. I’ve never thought of myself as some sort of Godardian filmmaker, but the work of Godard has been extremely influential to me. It’s kind of interesting because those were the movie I was watching when I was coming of age as a filmmaker. Movies like Hail Mary, Nouvelle Vague, Every Man for Himself. It was ultimately this mid-career Godard period that was most important to me in my formative years. It was a period where he was using movie stars in slightly off parts and integrating whoever they were into the film.
It would probably be interesting to see how he would use someone like Kristen.
Right, right. I’m using a lot of stuff that he’s been using. I don’t think I’ve been that conscious of it, but looking back it’s pretty obvious.