Olivier Assayas: Between Love and Terror
Olivier Assayas has brought his seemingly effortless virtuosity to an extremely diverse range of more than 20 films, including the stylized comedic parody Irma Vep; the erotic, fast-paced corporate espionage thriller demonlover; and his sublimely humane treatise on family and art set in the French countryside, Summer Hours. Assayas has earned three nominations for the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or Award: in 2000 for Les destinées; in 2002 for demonlover; and in 2004 for Clean. His most recent work, Carlos, stormed this year’s festival with yet another foray into new realms: a daring, dizzying, and engrossing five-hour take on the life of Carlos “the Jackal,” a Venezuelan Marxist revolutionary who terrorized Europe in the 1970s, setting the stage for today’s international terror network. That film, described by the LA Times as “The Bourne Identity with more substance, or Munich with more of a pulse … [a] globetrotting and epic look at one man’s rise to the station of international guerilla leader and terrorist celebrity,” receives its Minneapolis premiere at the Walker as part of Assayas’ Regis Dialogue and Retrospective.
This daring filmmaker pioneered the globalist thriller genre, but catches many viewers by surprise with his quieter dramas. The core of his work is a celebration of everyday life’s intimate moments—a legacy of the French New Wave. The son of two émigrés—his mother a Hungarian and his father the Italian screenwriter Jacques Rémy—Assayas spent his youth in Paris captivated by the idea of directing films. “I grew up in a family that had completely scattered roots, which can be weird when you’re a kid. You have a vague notion of a history, some kind of lost past,” he said in a New York Times interview. “But I also grew up within French culture, reading the French classics, learning about French art, French philosophy.”
That upbringing yielded a complicated take on his country’s cinema. His first short, Copyright (1979), caught the attention of editors at the legendary French journal Cahiers du Cinéma— where New Wave directors such as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard began their writing careers—and from 1979 to 1985 Assayas also wrote film criticism for them. But while his work is influenced by his nationality—not just the New Wave, but also France’s traditional use of landscape in painting—his themes, actors, and locations embrace a contemporary global perspective. His dramas, moreover, consistently present individuals who need to cut established ties, with families or with communities, in order to discover who they are. “Lived experience…is Mr. Assayas’ great subject.” (New York Times).
For a Cahiers assignment in 1984, Assayas traveled to Hong Kong to write what would be the first serious piece on popular Cantonese cinema by a Westerner. This excursion had a profound impact: many Assayas films are partially set in Asian countries, incorporate Asian themes (such as Japanese manga in demonlover), or borrow from the frenetic Hong Kong style (exemplified by Boarding Gate). They celebrate both the high and low aspects of Asian culture: its accelerated, hypermodern urbanity (Irma Vep and demonlover) as well as the more subtle influence of Chinese poetry and painting (Les destinées and Summer Hours).
Globalism is another consistent theme branching off from the multifaceted Asian influence in Assayas’ work. In films such as demonlover, Clean, Boarding Gate, and Carlos, characters move among farflung settings, speaking multiple languages and grappling with a rapidly changing world on psychological, emotional, and financial levels. Even his more ostensibly “French” films set in bourgeois milieus, such as Summer Hours, Late August, Early September, and Les destinées, are inherently international: characters’ decisions are influenced by global economics; their relationships transformed by modernity. Assayas has also become known for his films’ soundtracks. Influenced by late 1970s punk, he organizes his film sequences in terms of rhythmic structures, and while in production on a project, often inserts whatever music he’s listening to at the time. “He uses music to amplify reality, almost as if he were inviting you to listen to the songs playing in other people’s heads,” posited critic Manohla Dargis in the New York Times—a technique played out memorably with Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” framing an all-night party in Cold Water; or Sonic Youth’s “Tunic (Song for Karen)” allowing Maggie Cheung a moment of escape in Irma Vep; or Mazzy Star’s crooning songs helping Clean’s down-and-out protagonist in her attempt to re-enter the world of rock-and-roll. Incorporating British and American rock typifies Assayas’ inclination to look far afield in every aspect of his films. Coupled with his spirit of experimentation and virtuosic filmmaking, this makes Assayas a director of singular style and substance.
Programming support provided by CulturesFrance and the Consulate General of France in Chicago.