By Jake Howell jake.howell@utoronto.ca

Countdown To Cannes: Olivier Assayas

CLOUDS-OF-SILS-MARIA-Photo-©-Carole-Béthuel_IMG_9419The sixteenth in a series of snapshots outlining the nineteen directors in the 67th Palme d’Or Competition.

Background: French; born Paris, France 1955.

olivier2Known for / style: Demonlover (2002), Clean (2004), Summer Hours (2008), Carlos (2010); accomplished film criticism in addition to screenwriting; a narrative filmography that includes a number of documentaries; a wide-ranging catalogue that ranges a spread of both genres and modes of storytelling; themes of youth and self-exploration; works that are steeped in autobiography; working with and writing for Juliette Binoche; notably strong female characters; collaborating, most recently, with cinematographer Yorick Le Saux.

Notable accolades: A major component of his career, Assayas’ screenwriting is formidable; his script for Something in the Air took home Venice’s Golden Osella in 2012. His miniseries Carlos also did very well, winning LAFCA’s Best Director and Best Foreign Film awards. Carlos was also a second place runner-up at the National Society of Film Critics awards (Best Director).

Previous Cannes appearances: Attending the Festival first as a journalist and later as a filmmaker, Assayas debuted his first film Laisse Inachevé a Tokyo in 1983. His screenwriting later brought him to the Festival with André Techine films Rendez-vous (1985) and Le Lieu du Crime; he joined the festival’s Un Certain Regard program with 1996’s Irma Vep. He was invited to the Competition in 2000 with Les Destinees Sentimentales, following up with 2002’s Demonlover and 2004’s Clean in the same slot. Assayas has also debuted Boarding Gate, Chacun son Cinéma (both 2007) and 2010’s Carlos out of Competition. 2014 sees his fourth Competition title.

 Film he’s bringing to Cannes: Clouds of Sils Maria, one of the starriest debuts in the 2014 competition. The plot summary, from the distributor’s website: “At the peak of her international career, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is asked to perform in a revival of the play that made her famous twenty years ago. But back then she played the role of Sigrid, an alluring young girl who disarms and eventually drives her boss Helena to suicide. Now she is being asked to step into the other role, that of the older Helena. She departs with her assistant (Kristen Stewart) to rehearse in Sils Maria; a remote region of the Alps. A young Hollywood starlet with a penchant for scandal (Chloë Grace Moretz) is to take on the role of Sigrid, and Maria finds herself on the other side of the mirror, face to face with an ambiguously charming woman who is, in essence, an unsettling reflection of herself.” Rounding out the cast are Lars Eidinger, Johnny Flynn, and Brady Corbet.

CLOUDS-OF-SILS-MARIA-Photo-©-Carole-Béthuel_IMG_4763Could it win the Palme? While Assayas is due for a major win at any festival, it’s foggy on whether or not Clouds of Sils Maria is one of the heaviest hitters at Cannes 2014. It’s star-studded, there’s no doubt about that; also positive is the film’s strong female characters, a truth that’s sure to play well to Jane Campion’s jury. Juliette Binoche, meanwhile, is an acting powerhouse on the Croisette, which may translate into a prize for her performance. That being said, the Competition is incredibly strong this year, and there are other films—on paper, of course—that seem more likely.

Why you should care: “Technique is dangerous, that’s the way I’ve always seen it,” Assayas said in 2013 in an interview with Black Book. “I always try to break it.” Whatever cinematic skies Clouds of Sils Maria is hiding, it’s assuredly going to be worthy of a conversation. Stewart, in need of a refreshing role, may have something here with Assayas, who is known for his strong female protagonists. Binoche agrees, saying the following about the director at a recent Q&A: “When we were shooting [Clouds of Sils Maria], I was thinking: I’m just living my dream. [Assayas] is really daring, he’s been writing for women, he’s been beyond what I expected. It gives me so much satisfaction.”

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Previous Entries:

Tommy Lee Jones

Atom Egoyan

Bennett Miller

Xavier Dolan

David Cronenberg

Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Naomi Kawase

Ken Loach

Michel Hazanavicius

Jean-Luc Godard

Bertrand Bonello

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Andrey Zvyagintsev

Abderrahmane Sissako

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“I don’t really believe in guilty pleasures. I like to subscribe to Susan Sontag’s thought of no highs and lows. I think dismissing popular culture and popular films can be really dangerous because they may seem innocuous, but some are works of art and even when they’re not they can say so much about the culture that they’re reflecting. This also gets into the idea of canon. What is good and isn’t good? Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about that. Specifically, who writes these canons? Mainly, straight white guys — which basically rigs the system. So, if you have a knowledge of female filmmakers, queer filmmakers, African or Asian filmmakers, some people won’t give them the same culture capital. They’ll say, “Oh, that’s nice niche knowledge.” No, it’s not. You’re just seeing it through the prism of something white and male. Like Shonda Rhimes’ ‘Scandal.’ I love that show, but is it a guilty pleasure because it’s a soap on TV? No. I think it has incredible writing, incredible thought and characters, so we should take it seriously. That’s a long-winded answer to say, “Yes, I love Titanic.” I was 10 years old when it came out and my mom took me to see it three times. I was so obsessed with it. A big thanks to my mom who’ll never get those nine hours of her life back.”
~ Toronto Int’l Programmer and Critic Kiva Reardon

“A lot of us felt blindsided,” Van Vliet told me. In the seventies, Van Vliet was drafted out of film school by Industrial Light & Magic, where he worked on The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Now 62 and semi-retired, he said, “Once you get into your fifties, you’re pretty disposable.” Van Vliet was in the middle of reviewing DVD screeners before casting his Oscar votes, a process he estimated would take a hundred and twenty hours. “The Academy is essentially asking us to give them three weeks of labor, and then they’re going to take our results, put them into a ceremony, and sell it,” he said, referring to the seventy-five million dollars that the organization earns from the television broadcast. “Then they’re turning around and kicking us in the teeth.”
~ “Shakeup At The Oscars”