The Clouds of Sils Maria features the French siren in the role of an aging actress agonizing over her latest job: playing the role of the older woman, instead of the ingenue, in a revival of the play that made her famous. Binoche says she wasn’t afraid to tackle a reflection of herself, but she did push director Olivier Assayas to face what she calls a “fear of actors… particularly women.”
By Katherine Monk
In an age of ubiquitous celebrity, Juliette Binoche is an old-fashioned movie star. It’s more than the Prada blouse that seems to flow over her curves with loving deference, and more than the elegantly honed features that allow her to look both pretty and strong simultaneously. The French actress who emerged in the wake of The English Patient has a presence that moves through a room like precious perfume, a tingle mingled with an essence.
Binoche brings her intoxicating powers to every role she’s ever had, from Lasse Halstrom’s Chocolat to Michael Haneke’s Hidden, to Gareth Edward’s Godzilla. But her performance in Olivier Assayas’s The Clouds of Sils Maria may be the best showcase of Binoche’s talent to date as she plays Maria Enders, an actress facing a personal and professional challenge: She’s been asked to play the older woman, instead of the ingénue, in the play that made her famous. The film also stars Kristen Stewart as Enders’s assistant and Chloe Grace-Moretz as the upstart ingénue, but it’s Binoche who provides the gravitas, and the gravitational pull, that keeps these fictional bodies in motion.
The Clouds of Sils Maria hits home entertainment this month, but Binoche says it was one of those roles that changed her for good.
Q: What does director Olivier Assayas see in women that other directors maybe don’t?
A: Well, actually, when I saw him, before he wrote the script, I actually provoked him in saying I would like to see you writing for women and going into the feminine side of yourself, because I’m longing for Bergman films. And I knew he loved them as well, so somehow I knew he was capable of this, and I felt on Summer Hours when I worked with him that he, he… it was almost as if he, well it seemed to me that he was frightened, of actors in general, but I would say women.
A: And that’s probably why I called him, to somehow provoke him. And when I read the script a year after, I was astonished – as well as not astonished, because I knew it was going to be three women, three characters, and the idea of exchanging roles, and having a film in three parts, but I didn’t know about the acting thing. It was really his choice, so when I read it, I was so excited. But at the same time, not knowing where it was going to take us. You discover that as you’re going. And Olivier gives space to actors, a lot of space to actors and the DP (director of photography) and so to start with, he is very open to any kind of suggestion. Like one day I saw him and asked him what he thought of me with very short hair? Do you like this idea? And he said yes, fantastic. So he’s always happy when the actor gets involved because he trusts that intuition, and he knows what actors go through.
Q: So what other things did you bring to it, then, with the short hair? How did you take advantage of the space he opened up?
A: I don’t think it’s about taking advantage, I think it’s necessary. Ha ha ha…
Q: Ha ha ha…
A: Also because he gives so much, he needs that space for you to work, and the good directors do that: They don’t tell you to do anything. You let it come… I mean, you have exceptions, like (Michael) Haneke, who is very controlled and controlling, and likes to be like that. But mostly, the directors I work with when it’s true and there, they just let it flourish and keep it growing because that way, they know they are getting the best performances. Younger directors somehow feel they need to interfere. But as you are going with a director, you do understand that. It depends on the actor you have, of course, but you have to let it happen.
Q: If directors get more confident as they get older, and become less controlling, what happens to you, as an actor, as you get older and more confident? Has your approach to the craft changed over the course of your career?
A: Ahh… you know, for me, acting in a film is adapting to a film, it’s about adapting to a director and a subject, the moods the weather… so I don’t anticipate how it’s going to be. What I know is that sometimes, uh, I’m thinking of a director Erik Poppe, who I worked with (1,000 Times Good Night) and he’s Norwegian, and before starting to shoot, he would ask ‘Any questions?’ and I would say no, because there’s no need for answers… yet… Ha ha ha ha!
Q: Ha ha ha!
A: And of course we would laugh about it because it was his way of dealing with the emotion of letting it go.
Q: Ah… letting it go. I was fascinated by the arc of these characters, and it seems they are transformed by the process of letting go. What does your character let go of in the last act?
Q: Fear of what?
A: Of not controlling, fear of being abandoned, fear of not knowing, fear of failing, fear of…
A: Well, allowing herself to be in a job where she doesn’t know if she will survive or not. Aging? No, you know, because when you go into aging as a layer of creation, it’s not age that you’re facing. You’re facing your fears… the fear of not being loved.
Aging? No, you know, because when you go into aging as a layer of creation, it’s not age that you’re facing. You’re facing your fears… the fear of not being loved.
A: It’s different.
Q: Did it educate you? Because you are an actress… and your character has the same job, did you have to keep some professional distance? There’s a mirror here, and you’ve already mentioned Bergman, so there’s an obvious connection to Persona here… how did you prevent the character from bleeding through you? Or was that part of it?
A: To me, the safest place is the truth, so you go to the truth of it. And the truth is abandoning yourself inside the challenge of it, which is not knowing. So you have to go with trust, trust that something is going to come, that you can’t control. And that’s going to go through you, instead of you doing it.
Q: That sounds hard to do.
A: I tell you, acting is not easy. Ha ha ha!
Q: Ha ha ha!… No. It’s not. What is the hardest part for you?
A: Well, what is the New? How do you renew yourself in acting? Because when you come to a place of recognition and being well-known, and seen in a crowd, and all that expectation, how do you renew yourself in letting go of that image you created outside yourself and be humble enough to not know, and not be manipulative in what you think you know. How you do things. There are times of life, for an actor, and in anyone’s creative life where you have to question yourself. Or it questions you. It works like that if you are open enough. It’s inside of you. Very recently, I just finished a film and I was just exhausted physically and emotionally. And I had so many furs, it was 40 degrees in the studio and the fur was heavy and my heart was overworking, and emotionally, the story was so extreme, because she was left alone with another woman and going through starvation in the middle of nowhere at the North Pole, it was so extreme that I became vulnerable. And I didn’t know that I could be that vulnerable because I’m usually not that vulnerable. Coming out of Camille Claudel, I was fine at the end of it. You know, I gave it everything, but when it’s over, it’s over. This one left me on the ground. I felt really hurt and it surprised me. Why, what happened to me that it hit me so deeply and now I feel unbalanced? I think it’s just transition time. And when I started the next movie, shortly after, because I had been so wounded, I felt I can’t go there again, so I had to find another way. And that was being nourished, not from the ground, but from above. And I felt very much changed. And only when you are pushed to the wall, and you can’t find this vision of yourself but somehow, it finds you, change can really happen. It’s like a current going through you and you touch some kind of ground.
Q: And you feel stronger?
A: I feel healed. Part of me is healed, but it’s much more than that. It’s emotional, psychological, intellectual. I think we’d need a philosophy degree or something, because it’s the knowledge of what it means to be a whole human being. Philosophical therapy.
Q: I’m getting the sign to wrap… Quickly… Kristen Stewart? She was a revelation to me in this role.
A: Yes. She’s fantastic. People don’t give her enough credit.
The Clouds of Sils Maria is available on on DVD and Blu-ray.