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“I realized when I was writing that the work of an actress is not so much about the superficiality or the technique of acting; it’s about absorbing humanity,” said writer-director Olivier Assayas on Wednesday afternoon after a press screening of Clouds of Sils Maria. “It’s about understanding other people’s pains and trying to find within yourself the truth of those emotions that are universal. Ultimately, this is not a comment on theater or art; it’s just a way of showing how the day-to-day work of an actress is beautiful in a sense that it’s about understanding other humans. Often it involves pains. It involves a lot of joy, but it’s a lot of pain. That’s what movies are about.”
Assayas was joined onstage at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater by stars Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart, just hours before the film’s New York Film Festival premiere, to discuss acting, aging and femininity — only a few of the many topics that Cloud of Sils Maria tackles with subtlety in just over two hours.
Watch more ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’ Trailer: Kristen Stewart Flirts With Juliette Binoche
The drama follows Binoche as beloved international actress Maria Enders, who scored her breakthrough at age 18 by playing the role of a young woman who breaks the heart of another twice her age. Now asked to portray the older woman in a restaging, Enders runs lines and deconstructs (rather, debates) the work’s dynamic with her very close personal assistant, appropriately named Valentine (Stewart).
While the film began as Binoche’s pitch to Assayas about “an idea of going into the feminine — we need the feminine badly in this world,” Assayas came to the aforementioned revelation mid-draft and ended up with a condensed and “brutalized version of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, touching on age, time and what he called “the reality or the not reality of desire,” while honoring the craft of acting.
Even more so, Assayas strived to play with the idea of an actor’s identity in juxtaposition with his or her role. “You never forget you’re watching those actresses — the fact that you know that those actresses are playing those parts is part of what the film is about,” he explained. The director noted that viewers should find themselves “watching both the actress and the part” simultaneously, as the audience of reporters did at the press screening when Stewart’s character makes jabs at Hollywood at large and informs Binoche’s Enders that her next collaborator is a young actress of superficial franchise films and has a personal life that makes for tabloid fodder.
“I had to reign in the glee on my face, and make sure my cheeks weren’t turning red, and I wasn’t brimming with hysterical laughter when I say some of the lines I say in the movie, because just the life that I’m living and my experience gave it this irony and made it a bit more relevant and interesting,” Stewart said, laughing.
Read more ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’: Cannes Review
Binoche found the gig challenging, as she didn’t have a single day off and came to seamlessly portray three roles throughout the film: the working actress, the off-duty celebrity and the character she comes to play. “The challenge is somehow allowing to be naked every day and also showing the difficulty, what it costs to act and to give yourself. There’s an abdication as an actor — you have to serve a part and put yourself into layers of emotions you don’t always want to go to.”
And though Stewart signed on “to really get into something; I wanted to play something I had observed but not done,” she didn’t feel the strain as Maria’s personal assistant, Val. Besides the fact that “I learn lines quickly, and that’s solely because I don’t want to know them, I want to reach for them, I’m addicted to that first-experience feeling,” she noted. “In this case, more than ever, I didn’t feel pressure or expectation. I felt like truly we were these characters. I was interested in the script because it was a unique relationship and an interesting commentary on the world I live in, and I thought it was really heady and thoughtful and intellectual, and I hadn’t done much dialogue before.”
She added, “Anything you see in the movie was just what was happening. It wasn’t hard. It was definitely a ride, and I didn’t know where that was going. I liked the script because it was interesting and smart, but then after that, it was an entirely emotional experience.”
Stewart was initially offered to play Chloe Grace Moretz’ role of the crash-and-burn young Hollywood actress, but “it was something that I knew so well; I wasn’t as interested in living it (Assayas clarified to her that “you were always my first choice [for Val], but the script didn’t get to you in time.”)
Read more Olivier Assayas Talks Returning to Competition with ‘Sils Maria’
“The relationship between these two women is so unique. … Wow, these people are everything to each other. You can’t categorize their relationship,” Stewart explained. “I was just really surprised every day about how the movie is about so many things. Those two very contrasting perspectives and stages of life that come together and offer each other these eye-opening, cathartic experiences that are exciting but extremely painful. [But] I’m happy being uncomfortable.”
“I have so much fun with her,” Stewart noted of Binoche. “She perplexes me in every way and gets me going, and I never stop thinking around her.”
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