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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“Yes, good movies sprout up, inevitably, in the cracks and seams between the tectonic plates on which all of these franchises stay balanced, and we are reassured of their hardiness. But we don’t see what we don’t see; we don’t see the effort, or the cost of the effort, or the movies of which we’re deprived because of the cost of the effort. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice may have come from a studio, but it still required a substantial chunk of outside financing, and at $35 million, it’s not even that expensive. No studio could find the $8.5 million it cost Dan Gilroy to make Nightcrawler. Birdman cost a mere $18 million and still had to scrape that together at the last minute. Imagine American movie culture for the last few years without Her or Foxcatcher or American Hustle or The Master or Zero Dark Thirty and it suddenly looks markedly more frail—and those movies exist only because of the fairy godmothership of independent producer Megan Ellison. The grace of billionaires is not a great business model on which to hang the hopes of an art form.”
~ Mark Harris On The State Of The Movies

How do you make a Top Ten list? For tax and organizational purposes, I keep a log of every movie I see (Title, year, director, exhibition format, and location the film was viewed in). Anything with an asterisk to the left of its title means it’s a 2014 release (or something I saw at a festival which is somehow in play for the year). If there’s a performance, or sequence, or line of dialogue, even, that strikes me in a certain way, I’ll make a note of it. So when year end consideration time (that is, the month and change out of the year where I feel valued) rolls around, it’s a little easier to go through and pull some contenders for categories. For 2014, I’m voting in three polls: Indiewire, SEFCA (my critics’ guild), and the Muriels. Since Indiewire was first, it required the most consternation. There were lots of films that I simply never had a chance to see, so I just went with my gut. SEFCA requires a lot of hemming and hawing and trying to be strategic, even though there’s none of the in-person skullduggery that I hear of from folk whose critics’ guild is all in the same city. The Muriels is the most fun to contribute to because it’s after the meat market phase of awards season. Also, because it’s at the beginning of next year, I’ll generally have been able to see everything I wanted to by then. I love making hierarchical lists, partially because they are so subjective and mercurial. Every critical proclamation is based on who you are at that moment and what experiences you’ve had up until that point. So they change, and that’s okay. It’s all a weird game of timing and emotional waveforms, and I’m sure a scientist could do an in-depth dissection of the process that leads to the discovery of shocking trends in collective evaluation. But I love the year end awards crush, because I feel somewhat respected and because I have a wild-and-wooly work schedule that has me bouncing around the city to screenings, or power viewing the screeners I get sent.
Jason Shawhan of Nashville Scene Answers CriticWire