Juliette Binoche makes a welcome return to our screens this week in Olivier Assayas’ lively and engrossing study of performers and their personal boundaries, Clouds of Sils Maria.
The French A-lister has a great deal of fun toying with audience perception, in playing an acclaimed actress, Maria Enders, whose resume closely resembles aspects of Binoche’s own. Edited highlights: Maria found fame at 20 in a seductive role; has stayed in the public eye in a range of thoughtful roles across stage and screen; and she remains a major drawcard as she heads into her fifties. Sound like anyone we know?
In Clouds, Maria contemplates returning to the stage in the play that launched her career, in a different, much less flattering role than the youthful vixen (‘Sigrid’) she once played. She is cast as the older woman whose life is destroyed by the manipulative exploits of her younger foil. Maria rehearses the ‘inferior’ role with her assistant, Val (Kristen Stewart), in the mountain cabin of the late playwright, and as the pair run lines ad nauseum and at close quarters, their own relationship starts to echo the power dynamic within the text. A weird fog of grief, jealousy, cabin fever and the very literal reminder that she’s an ageing actress in a superficial business starts to cloud Maria’s judgement, and she gets lost in a particularly debilitating case of performance anxiety.
Binoche explains that the basic outline for the film came out of a desire to explore “this idea of talking about the feminine, or having three female parts, that replace each other’s role”.
“I had this kind of vision,” she explains. “Also, you know, I was also missing Bergman’s films.”
“I thought, ‘Who can I ask?’ Who could I approach as the director and writer, to see whether there’s some resonance with that subject?
“I thought of Olivier because we had done Summer Hours and I had not felt as satisfied as I had hoped to be. I think there were probably too many characters and there was not a one-on-one relationship as an actor and director. So I phoned him and he was open to try and see if something would come out. I read the script a year afterwards.
“The first script was much longer – it was hard to see the core of the film somehow but then I felt, ‘Wow’. That’s pretty strong journey. I was so thrilled because it was a subject that I know, you know?!”
Assayas’s involvement adds another layer in the quasi-‘Binoche-ograpical’ aspects of the film. Assayas wrote Rendez-vous, the 1985 erotic drama directed by Andre Techine, in which 20-year old Binoche played an aspiring actress caught up in a doomed love rectangle.
Binoche clearly relishes the playful ironies within her character's back story, but she’s equally happy to draw a firm line between herself and Maria whenever the opportunity arises.
“It’s interesting because Maria has a hard time to let go of the past. I don’t. I don’t at all! I think probably because I am fully living things and that’s it. What else can I ask? I’ve made mistakes, of course and but I’m still downloading some of the moments, specific moments of my choices. It feels to me that when you really live the way you have to live, you have had to say ‘Yes’. Then there’s no going back, no regret, no trying to live the past anymore. It was something I was very surprised by Maria. She’s insisting, ‘I’m still Sigrid’. For me that is, like, “What!!?”
“There are films I loved doing and for which the moment I shared in it was so special. Those will stay in me until the end but I never ‘hanging onto’ a part. A part is just a tool, a pretext, and you see something else through it.”
“But I have to tell you, there are some actors who, when you go in their home, they still have pictures of themselves on their walls, in the role of this in the role of that… I couldn’t do that. I just couldn’t! You have to be in the present. Acting is about forgetting yourself, so you’re serving something bigger than yourself. It’s about using everything you have, which is so precious. It's about lifting into another space, transitioning into an art form so people can see through it.”
Clouds revolves around Maria’s own preparations for the role, and Binoche does share the same love of rehearsing.
“I did work on the script with my coach for about two weeks. I like to do that but not always. I especially like to do it when it’s very wordy, like this was. It’s good to have a back and forth talking about things, because Olivier doesn’t work in that way, he’s not used to working with actors in that way. He would just let the actor ‘be’ and do whatever they feel like and inside of a frame. He’s framing it. He’s asking you to sit here, go there, and he knows where to cut and acting is about that too.
“But I like to prepare in advance, especially knowing who I was going to work with, and when you have an arc. You have to know where you are in the arc when you’re playing so that was good.”
Unfortunately, her co-star didn’t share the same methods.
“Kristen didn’t like rehearsing,” Binoche reflects with a laugh. “We tried once but she felt it was a burden for her! I mean, she enjoyed talking about things but it was not her thing so the two characters really only met on the first take. There was no trying before. It was exciting in a way, but we were spending a lot of time together so it felt very familiar in a way.”
On reflection, Binoche says, “It was exciting to see inside this part of acting, and let the world into what we sometimes have to go through. That complexity of having to evolve and let go of the past.”
“My character is so very needy. She’s going through a very difficult time with divorcing, and finding the roles less interesting. The demands are less than before so there’s the adaptation. The, ‘How do I live with that?’ It takes time to adapt with the new situations that you are faced with as an actor.
“I’m used to going down and up, like in life actually. It’s part of the game. You’ve got to go down as an actor. If you don’t have the guts and responsibility to go down it’s better to change and do something else!”
Clouds of Sils Maria is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
Read our review of Clouds of Sils Maria
Watch a Juliette Binoche movie at SBS on Demand
Fiona Williams interviewed Juliette Binoche in Paris as a guest of Unifrance.