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Olivier Assayas: a romantic born a little too late

17/05/19
Non-Fiction, dir. Olivier Assayas
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Olivier Assayas, the director of Clouds of Sils Maria and Summer Hours, is a unique artist who defies simple categorization. We are going to take a closer look at his work during this year's New Horizons International Film Festival, and you can get a taste of our retrospective on 17 May, when his latest film, Non-Fiction, starring Juliette Binoche, hits cinemas.

Comfortable in both auteur and mainstream circles, Assayas has never been claimed by any movement as one of its own. While raised on the energy of 1968, he kept his distance from the idealism of the hippie generation (and their offspring, whose disenchantment was expressed in punk rock, among other things). Critical of breakneck progress and globalization, he has flirted deftly with Hollywood.

Małgorzata Sadowska, the selector for the New Horizons International Film Festival, writes about Assayas's work.

"How to reproduce in film that intensity, that clarity, that feeling of being here and now that I experienced in late 1976 at a Clash concert at the Palais des glaces, at the end of Rue du Faubourg du Temple, right on the canal, in an old theater that had not yet been annexed by officials and television comedians?" This question, which he asks himself in an autobiographical essay from the book A Post-May Adolescence, contains virtually all the answers. They are youth, music (post-punk!), the spirit of change, underground and innocence-right before (inevitable?) disappointment. These ingredients, in various proportions, can be found in each of the French director's fascinating works.

They are not used more and more from film to film, however; Assayas constantly tests their durability against the passage of time, their current significance. In a way, his obsession is rather caught in an act of zeitgeist.

Whether it's his latest comedy, Non-Fiction (2018), or the period piece Sentimental Destinies (2000), the post-punk Disorder (1986), the dystopian Demonlover (2002) or the Bergmanesque Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), Assayas listens intently to the sound of his own constantly changing era. And although his diverse filmography gives the impression, at first glance, of a thematic and stylistic mishmash, the individual titles share hidden affinities. One of the pleasures of spending time with Assayas's films is found in discovering these connections.

Some of the films are arranged in a kind of trilogy, such as his debut DisorderWinter's Child (1989) and Paris Awakens (1991), which deal with youthful rights of passage. Or in the way DemonloverClean (2004) and Boarding Gate (2007) are critical of new technologies and globalization. But apart from the obvious, there are also more subtle connections: Sentimental Destinies, in which the fates of family members hang in the balance; Non-Fiction (2018), where the future of paper books is in question; Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), where an icon of auteur cinema meets a young Hollywood celebrity; or in Summer Hours (2008), a story about the fate of an inheritance consisting of rare antiques and works of art. In all these films, Assayas explores the subject of the confrontation of tradition with modernity and "progress," as well as the treatment of legacy. But every one of these films is, in fact, about cinema: during the transition from 35 mm film to digital technologies (Sentimental Destinies), during the dominance of TV series (Non-Fiction) and the dominance of Hollywood entertainment (Clouds of Sils Maria), and at a time when auteur cinema is being relegated to museum exhibits (Summer Hours). A subject that is repeated over and over again in his work is youth, from his first few films, through Something in the Air, to Personal Shopper (2016).

Cold WaterDisorderSomething in the Air (2012) and Carlos (2010) are successive scenes in a story about the 1970s and its legacy. Assayas, as he has repeatedly stressed, feels like a child of that era: of the chaos and disillusion, as well as the intellectual and artistic ferment. The punk-rock era is coming, the joyful energy of the hippie era is burning out-the director captures the moment of transition perfectly in Cold Water, whose soundtrack features work by Roxy Music, Janice Joplin, Nico, Bob Dylan and Creedence Clearwater. Growing up in the 1970s offered far better prospects than young people have today: "a wide range of values that you could invest in if you were even a little interested", says Assayas in his autobiographical essay A Post-May Adolescence. "We didn't know," he continues, "where we were going, but the trip itself was exciting." Circling around the disenchantment following the defeat of the revolt of May 1968, Assayas reveals in his films an intergenerational conflict and introduces despotic fathers who, with one bad check, destroy their children's dreams of independence. The struggle against the authorities, against the establishment and their old world seems to be beyond the power of the protagonists. And at the same time, the key to many of them is the process of abandoning the role of the son and taking on the role of the father (Winter's ChildSentimental Destinies). Assayas portrays, with extraordinary empathy, rebellious young people passionately searching for their own path. At the same time, however, they symbolize the immaturity of May 1968, which, from the perspective of the 1970s, was perfectly clear. This ambivalence of youth is captured perfectly in one of the most splendid sequences in his work: a half-hour party scene in the ruins of an old estate in Cold Water. While the rebellious "Knocking on Heaven's Door" is giving way to one of Leonard Cohen's dark ballads, the flame of youth shoots high into the sky-but it's just a flash in the pan to be extinguished by the gray dawn of reality. Something has come to an end, and whatever begins, it will be burdened with the responsibility of making decisions.

Betrayal and fidelity-both ideological and private-are the next major themes in the work of Assayas, an artist who combines fire and water: art house and mainstream, Juliette Binoche and Kirsten Stewart, reforging his cinephile passion (he wrote for Cahiers du cinéma, published a book-length interview with Ingmar Bergman, made a documentary about Hou Hsiao-hsien and popularized cinema from Hong Kong in Europe) into attractive films in which he tests out new ideas and closely observes the evolution of the medium itself.

In contemporary cinema, the French director has a rather unique status: neither auteur nor mainstream cinema recognizes him completely as its own. He has not yet managed to win any of the most important film awards, although his films have entered the Cannes Festival competition on five occasions and the Venice Festival competition on two occasions, and he has been nominated for a French César three times and a European Film Award once. He remains one of Europe's least understood and, at the same time, most popular directors. Seeing cinema as a space for "recycling life's experiences," he has written an exciting on-screen autobiography that is also a biography of his generation-romantics born a little too late.


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