She told him they should make another film together — a female-centric movie with echoes of one of Mr. Assayas’s idols, Ingmar Bergman, about whom he had co-written a book. Ms. Binoche and Mr. Assayas had worked together on the 2009 ensemble piece “Summer Hours,” but Ms. Binoche wanted more. “It felt to me that we didn’t have the moment to know each other — we didn’t have this time where you could really smell someone, you know?” she recalled.
“Yes you’re right, Juliette,” Mr. Assayas remembered replying, “there is something missing in our relationship.”
So, over the next few years, between shooting his celebrated film about Carlos the Jackal, Mr. Assayas wrote Ms. Binoche a film, “Clouds of Sils Maria,” opening on Friday. Filmed in English, it tells the story of Maria Enders, an actress grappling with aging and grieving the loss of her mentor. Decades earlier, that mentor had made her a star by casting her in a play as a feckless ingénue, Sigrid, who drives an older lovesick woman, Helena, to suicide.
Ms. Binoche is Maria; Kristen Stewart is her American assistant, Valentine; and Chloë Grace Moretz is a fiery young American actress set to play Sigrid across from Maria’s Helena in a restaging of that pivotal play.
“I did not want to write a part for Juliette,” Mr. Assayas said. “I wanted to make a movie inspired by Juliette, using Juliette as a character.” He added: “And I went really all the way; one of the layers it kind of works on is the fact that you never lose touch with the fact that you are looking at Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart and Chloë Moretz. That’s part of the narrative in a certain way.”
Though the film is only now being released, it had its premiere at Cannes last year, when it earned accolades but no awards, and it was shown at the New York Film Festival last fall. (“Mr. Assayas’s touch is tender, and his direction brilliant,” Manohla Dargis wrote in The New York Times after its Cannes debut.) Ms. Binoche, Mr. Assayas and Ms. Stewart each sat down separately in New York to talk about the film.
While the plot of “Clouds” alludes to “Rendez-Vous,” which ends with Ms. Binoche’s character, a fledgling actress, poised on the cusp of stardom, Ms. Binoche said she didn’t share the near-paralyzing melancholy that grips Maria for much of the film. “There’s something about the past that she’s not in peace with somehow,” Ms. Binoche said over cappuccinos in a corner of the Crosby Street Hotel. “She’s trying to hang onto it; so there’s some kind of passage that she was not able to do where she feels stuck yet totally abandoned.”
Luminous at 50 (she has since turned 51), Ms. Binoche came across as a woman at ease with herself. “I’m not saying that aging is not difficult, but I love the present,” she continued. “Every period of time of my life, I’ve been really living it, so not avoiding it, so it doesn’t feel like I missed something.”
In “Clouds,” the core relationship, and a complicated one it is, is between the characters played by Ms. Binoche and Ms. Stewart, with nary a leading man in sight, something Ms. Stewart relished. “If you think about the typical relationships that you usually see in movies, even the title of relationships, there’s only a couple of them,” she said. “You’ve got friends, mother, father, boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife.” Maria and Valentine are, Ms. Stewart said, “like they’re all of those things — and none of those things — to each other at the same time.”
A finely tuned, highly alert presence, Ms. Stewart met to chat in a sun-flooded room at the Trump International Hotel on Columbus Circle, and gazed longingly at the leafy expanse of Central Park across the way. This was one of those days, she murmured, that she wished she could be outside. Of course, if any actress would be recognized in a heartbeat in that tourist-heavy corner of Manhattan, it would be her. This reality of Ms. Stewart’s, amplified by the tabloids’ insatiability about her life, imbued the role of Valentine — who acts as a gatekeeper for Maria, fending off zany, borderline demeaning work requests while helping her navigate the vagaries and vulgarities of celebrity — with a level of satisfaction that Ms. Stewart savored.
“I would have jumped at the chance to work with Olivier on anything,” said Ms. Stewart, who late last year won a César (the French equivalent of the Oscar) for her performance as Valentine, becoming the first American actress to win the award. “But the whole industry aspect of it, acknowledging the absurdity of it, I was giddy. I could barely get through the lines without hiding my glee.”
Working with Ms. Binoche kept her on her toes, Ms. Stewart said. “She’s like this eccentric, weird, kooky but brilliantly smart and heady, lofty strong woman — she’s rad,” she said. “She’s everything you would want Juliette Binoche to be.”
For much of the film, Valentine and Maria spend time in the secluded Swiss hamlet of Sils Maria, where Valentine helps a conflicted Maria prepare to play Helena, which had originally been played by an actress Maria long despised. Mr. Assayas came to know the area on a hiking trip, when he spotted the phenomenon of its clouds, which wind thickly through the mountaintops like a snake. “All of a sudden there was this idea of a landscape, where time was inscribed, which had this cloud which was both beautiful and also menacing,” he said last fall for this article.
In the end, after wrestling mightily with herself, as well as with Valentine, Maria finally finds a measure of peace, as she rehearses across from Ms. Moretz’s character and gives in to the younger actress’s interpretation of the role.
“The only future she can have is to change herself, and so because of that conflict she grows, and she separates from the past,” Ms. Binoche said. “It touched me so much. This separation, it’s always painful. What’s painful, actually, is the nonacceptance, the resisting is painful. And when we stop resisting, then the magic happens.”