Cannes Check 2014: Olivier Assayas’ ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’ with Kristen Stewart

Welcome to Cannes Check, In Contention's annual preview of the films in Competition at next month's Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off on May 14. Taking on a different selections every day, we'll be examining what they're about, who's involved and what their chances are of snagging an award from Jane Campion's jury. We're going through the list by director and in alphabetical order — starting with Olivier Assayas' “Clouds of Sils Maria.”

The director: Olivier Assayas (French, 59 years old). Yet another French auteur to have graduated to filmmaking via a stint as a critic at Cahiers du cinéma — putting him in the company of, among others, his Competition rival Jean-Luc Godard — Assayas still seems more more new-generation than his age might suggests. The son of French-Turkish screenwriter Jacques Remy, Assayas — whose formative years were indirectly chronicled in his 2012 youth-rebellion drama “Something in the Air” — co-wrote Andre Techine's 1985 Cannes winner “Rendez-vous” and made his feature directing debut in 1986 with “Disorder.”

He wouldn't really make an impact until his fifth feature, 1994's teen study “Cold Water,” which premiered in Un Certain Regard at Cannes. Since then, he's tried on a catholic range of genres and styles, from the hip, in-jokey industry satire “Irma Vep” (starring former wife Maggie Cheung) to the sprawling costume drama of “Les destineés sentimentales” to his massive, muscular terrorist biopic “Carlos.” Dividing critics with glossy, playful genre exercises like “Demonlover” and “Boarding Gate,” it's as he's settled into the warmer, more traditional forms of his recent work that his reputation has solidified.  

The talent: Assayas isn't a stranger to eclectic star casting, but “Clouds of Sils Maria” marks his first flirtation with the Hollywood A-list. French icon and Oscar winner Juliette Binoche (who won Best Actress at Cannes for “Certified Copy,” her last leading vehicle to premiere there, “Certified Copy”) is a familiar choice for Assayas; the pair collaborated on his acclaimed 2008 family drama “Summer Hours.” Far less expected are Kristen Stewart and Chloe Grace Moretz — both American starlets have indie credentials, but are making their first foray here into European arthouse fare. A third well-known Yank in the cast, Brady Corbet, has more experience in this field, having starred in “Melancholia” and another of this year's French Competition titles “Saint Laurent.” The international ensemble also includes British actor/composer Johnny Flynn and German “Everyone Else” star Lars Eidinger.  

Assayas, as usual, takes a writing credit. The film's editor, Marion Monnier, worked on “Carlos,” but is also connected to Assayas via her deft work on three features by his wife, Mia Hansen-Løve. Another returning “Carlos” alumnus is ace cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, better remembered for his work on “I Am Love” and several films by Francois Ozon.

The pitch: Assayas, several of whose films have been multilingual, returns to the English language with this German-French-Swiss co-production. Binoche plays Maria Enders, a well-regarded actress who faces a breakdown when a younger rival (Moretz) plays Enders' signature role in a new film. Stricken and haunted by memory, she retreats to the small Swiss town of Sils Maria, accompanied by her loyal assistant Valentine — played by Kristen Stewart. With the premise evoking shades of “All About Eve” and even “Persona,” this female-powered project should provide a plum grande dame part for La Binoche, at the very least; unsurprisingly, given that cast, US rights to the film (which runs a shade over two hours) have been snapped up by IFC Films.

The pedigree: This is Assayas' fourth time in Competition at Cannes, and his first in a decade, having previously entered with “Les destineés sentimentales,” “Demonlover” and “Clean.” He's come up empty with the jury every time, though the last of those took Best Actress for his ex, Maggie Cheung. (He served on the jury, meanwhile, in 2011, where he was said to be one of the driving champions of eventual Palme d'Or winner “The Tree of Life.”) He's been at Cannes for other films too, most recently the non-competing “Carlos” — the project that made him one of the unlikelier Emmy nominees of all time. He was a bit luckier at Venice recently, taking Best Screenplay for “Something in the Air,” Binoche, meanwhile, is one of a select group of actors to have won prizes at all three major European festivals.

The buzz: Obviously high on name value alone — the fanbases of Strwart and Moretz will ensure more media coverage of an Assayas film premiere than the director is probably used to. But word on the film itself has yet to circulate. Given its disparate elements and origins, the risk of a Europudding hovers faintly in the background, but critical faith in the director at this point in his career shouldn't be easy to shake, even if his leading lady's English-language output has been spotty of late..

The odds: Having evolved into something of a stylish establishment figure in recent years, Assayas is overdue some major festival hardware — though the all-round starriness of “Clouds of Sils Maria” may work against him if the jury is seeking to endorse more grass-roots artistry. “Carlos” excepted, Assayas' films tend to be better received the closer they stick to home. Jigsaw Lounge's mid-field odds of about 16-1 for the Palme d'Or seem about right, then; Binoche would be a more tempting bet for Best Actress if she hadn't won so recently, though juries aren't always mindful as such history.

Tomorrow in Cannes Check, we'll be sizing up the second of two 2014 biopics on the same French fashion icon: Bertrand Bonello's “Saint Laurent.”