Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Olivier Assayas

Olivier Assayas (born in 1955) is one of the most widely celebrated filmmakers working today.  One of France's most gifted young filmmakers, French cinema is part of Assayas’s heritage, as his father, Jacques Rémy, started out as an assistant to Max Ophuls before the Second World War, a director/screenwriter in the 1940’s who later worked mainly for TV.  When it was increasingly difficult for him to work because of a health condition, Olivier started to help him, first merely as a secretary, and then ghostwriting a few screenplays for the Maigret TV series.  His father directed a film for the Free French in South America during the German occupation and returned to a successful career scripting commercial films and “films of quality,” a list of which is inscribed by hand on a wall in the room that was his father’s study in a house that Assayas inherited in Saint-Rémy.  Olivier Assayas studied at l'École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  Knowing from childhood that he wanted to make movies, as his father was a screenwriter before the New Wave era, Olivier believed that literature, painting, and drawing would be better preparation for making films than going to film school. 

Jacques Rémy, the French cineaste, was also Rémy Assayas, an Italian Jew brought to France by Ophuls. “I’ve grown up in a multinational family.  I’ve never seen the borders of French culture.  My father was French-Jewish Italian; my mother was Hungarian-Austrian; my father lived in Argentina.  Friends of my parents spoke every possible language…French cinema for me was the associates of my father’s who would come to the house, guys in suits, smoking pipes.” But at the same time he was a child in—if not of—the French countryside, connected to the larger world vicariously. “I was cut off from the center of what was going on in those years,” he said, referring to the era of his adolescence and early manhood in the 1970’s.  “I fantasized it through the newspapers, the music, the comics, and I was especially receptive to the underground culture, the counterculture. I was reading the American alternative press or the English music magazines, and my mental world was pretty much some kind of international pop-culture world.”  Punk rock, American horror films, Hong Kong action movies — these set the terms of his post-May adolescence, where “I was much more interested in Wes Craven, in John Carpenter, in David Cronenberg.”  

Like the founders of the French New Wave, Assayas discovered the cinema first as a critic writing for the influential journal Cahiers du cinéma in the early 80’s, after training to be a painter, when the journal was emerging from a period he described as “Stalinian,” devoted to celebrating obscure militant filmmakers and analyzing the speeches of Georges Marchais, the dinosaurlike secretary general of the French Communist Party.  Throughout the early 1980’s he served on the journal's editorial board and wrote essays on his favorite European filmmakers, Robert Bresson and Andrei Tarkovsky, co-wrote a book of interviews with Ingmar Bergman, Conversation avec Ingmar Bergman, also Éloge de Kenneth Anger, while publishing extensive studies on American horror films and Hong Kong Cinema long before Hong Kong cinema became fashionable with Western filmgoers and critics.  He also collaborated on screenplays for such directors as Laurent Perrin and André Téchiné, including two Téchiné films, RENDEZ-VOUS (1985) and THE SCENE OF THE CRIME (1986), returning again a decade letter with  ALICE AND MARTIN (1998).  His earliest efforts at directing were four shorts completed between 1979 and 1985, while his first feature, Désordre won an award at Venice and enjoyed a brief period as a cult classic after its release in France in 1986.  What people responded to in this debut film was Olivier's portrayal of his characters' emotions and his exceptional stylization, where according to critic Kent Jones, “He makes an event out of every shape and spatial configuration that crosses his camera's field of vision. But each move, each colour, each visual rush is firmly connected to his characters.”

Like the New Wave directors, Assayas’s films are inspired both by art cinema and popular culture, intertwining currents from “high” and “low.”  In place of the Hollywood B-movie beloved by the nouvelle vague, Assayas channels the gritty energy of punk and post-punk culture and Asian genre films, mixed with quieter strains of East Asian hip and cool.  While Assayas is well-schooled in the venerated canon of postwar world cinema (Bresson and Visconti, Ozu and Mizoguchi), his work also gravitates markedly towards the avant-gardist margins (especially Anger and Warhol) and the perennially young “new waves” of Hong Kong and Taiwan, where later he would be among the first French film writers to discover the incipient Taiwanese new wave—filmmakers like Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-liang.  Their influence, in particular that of Hou (subject of Assayas’s 1997 documentary HHH), would prove decisive, in part because of the spirit of contemporaneity their films seemed, almost effortlessly, to capture.  In an elegy for Yang, who died in 2007—and whose films A CONFUCIAN CONFUSION (1994), MAHJONG (1996), and YI YI (2000) must figure in any canon of world cinema in the 90’s—Assayas described him as “a lucid observer, alternately cruel and sympathetic, of the unraveling of the world in which he grew up and its remaking by a new world order—new architecture, new forms of urbanism and a new circulation of capital.”  

Assayas is especially adept at exploring the tensions between the controlled chaos of cinematic artifice and the less-exalted disorder—where Disorder is his aptly named named first feature.  The dynamic eclecticism Assayas would evince in his filmmaking is already fully legible in his criticism, which focuses with equal insight on a diverse range of directors from Ingmar Bergman and Kenneth Anger to Hou Hsiao-Hsien and King Hu.  Though his films enjoyed considerable critical acclaim in France and at international film festivals, his name was virtually unknown in English-speaking countries until the release of his 1996 film Irma Vep, a witty and affectionate homage to silent cinema, a loving tribute both to Louis Feuillade and Hong Kong cinema.  Maggie Cheung, who he married briefly from 1998 to 2001, plays an actress starring in a disastrous modern remake of Louis Feuillade’s 1915 classic fantasy serial, LES VAMPIRES.  “Feuillade uses the screen like a stage, very frontally, with a fixed camera, though he has a great eye. I chose him because I wanted to explore the roots of French film culture.”  In a filmmaking career now more than thirty years old, Assayas has consistently conveyed an active imagination and a continued fascination with the dynamics of love, lust and affection, with misfits and criminals, and with cinema's unique ability to make them all real.  Assayas makes films about transition and transaction in modern life, with characters forced to negotiate shifting borders and strange new rules.  

Assayas is married to Mia Hansen-Love, a former actress first seen as a young teenager in Assayas’s Late August, Early September (Fin août, début septembre) (1998), now a director in her own right, most recently of Goodbye First Love (Un Amour de Jeunesse) (2011).  The women (Goodreche, Ledoyen, Cheung, Richard, Nielsen, Chloë Sevigny, Jeanne Balibar, Asia Argento) in Assayas’s films are complex, imaginative, vulnerable and sexually combative.  They’re not recessive, manipulative or solicitous like too many of their counterparts in Godard’s Sixties films.  Assayas is a key figure in the contemporary landscape of global art cinema, with direct connections to the Nouvelle Vague through his work at Cahiers du cinéma in the 1980’s, developing a complex relationship to the politics of the movement, and especially its attack on tradition and romanticism. “The whole generation of the Nouvelle Vague considered themselves to be children and didn’t want to be fathers … and they especially didn’t want to be fathers to the following generation—they had no connection with them, they didn’t help them.”  In a generation that includes Assayas, Arnaud Desplechin, André Téchiné, and Benoît Jacquot, they chose Bergman and Truffaut as models instead of Godard, a move that is important not only for the approach to dramatic representation that it entails, choosing fiction and character development over a constant interrogation of the image, but it positions the whole post-Nouvelle Vague generation in a compelling and transformative relationship with Truffaut’s own concept of a Cinèma de Papa.  The renegades of the New Wave took their cues from Old Hollywood—the “Hitchcocko-Hawksians,” they were sometimes called, in recognition of their debts to Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks.  

“If you are completely frank about what you are doing, filmmaking is animated by desire. It’s about beauty, grace, mystery -- a poetic dimension.”  Like many French directors, Olivier Assayas is a passionate cinephile, where his own work reflects this expertise and eclecticism.  Few others can match his effortless range, from lavish costume drama, Les Destinées Sentimentales (2000), to a high-tech sci-fi set against global internet espionage and pornography in Demonlover (2002).  Clean (2004) is different yet again, a gentle, melancholy drama starring Assayas’s former wife, the Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung, as a junkie rock chick struggling to kick her habit and win custody of her small son, where Cheung was named Best Actress in Cannes for her performance.  Small wonder, then, that Assayas is highly passionate and articulate about his art.  “I’ve always had a fascination with silent films and the filmmakers who invented the language of cinema.  They had no points of reference; they were not basing themselves on previous films.  They took their inspiration from painting, from literature, from architecture, and in every single movie they made, they defined new ways of telling stories, using sets and depicting characters.” 

A Portrait of the Artist: Olivier Assayas on Bergman's The Magician ...  Olivier Assayas essay on Bergman’s The Magician, Cahiers du cinéma, October 1990 

Olivier Assayas  Sight & Sound Poll Top Ten 2012

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