The works of Olivier Assayas-not very well known in Poland-offer a showcase of all the best aspects of French cinema. His films deftly combine autobiographical candor, intellectual depth and a humorous levity. Although Assayas is an eclectic artist-his films cover a range of genres, from dramas to comedies all the way to thrillers-he is able to able to imprint his own unique stamp on everything he does. He has earned his reputation as an auteur and as one of the most important successors to the ideas of the French New Wave.
Assayas has his father to thank for introducing him to the art of film. Raymond Assayas, who went by the name Jacques Rémy, was a screenwriter who collaborated with artists such as Roger Vadim, Christian-Jaque and René Clément. It was at his father's side that the younger Assayas took his first steps in the industry. When Rémy's health deteriorated while working on a TV series about Chief Inspector Jules Maigret, he suggested that his teenage son ghostwrite the scripts for several episodes. A little while later, Assayas began making his first short amateur films. At the same time-following the example of many other luminaries of French cinema-he launched his career as a film critic, writing for the famous Cahiers du cinéma. In addition to analyzing the work of his favorite European filmmakers, the future director also became one of the first critics to focus his attention on the phenomenon of Asian cinema. It is worth noting that Assayas continued writing after he had become a well-known director. In 1990, for example, having already made two full-length films, he published a collection of conversations with Ingmar Bergman.
Assayas was well aware that his place was primarily behind the camera. Barely 30, he made his feature debut with Disorder (1986). Looking back from our current perspective, the film, which focuses on a group of post-punk musicians, can be seen as an invaluable monument to the era. But Disorder's true value can be found in something else: Assayas was able to express for the first time his fascination with youth-a theme that he would come back to again and again in his later work. Unlike many directors, he never idealizes youth. Instead, he prefers to emphasize the ambivalence in the actions of his teenage protagonists. The young musicians from Disorder make an impression with their intransigence and rebellious energy; on the other hand, it is these same features that lead them down the path of self-destruction.
We see a similarly ambiguous image of youth in Something in the Air (2012), a film made at a much later stage of his career. The director shows us the dilemmas facing the protagonists, who grew up during a time of political fever at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s. Instead of telling another nostalgic tale of youthful enthusiasm, Assayas takes a much broader look at his protagonists in this masterful portrayal of their doubts and uncertainty.
Escaping the spectacle
A young man named Gilles, who is trying to reconcile his political commitment with his dream of becoming an artist, experiences a particularly intense internal conflict in Something in the Air. During his own turbulent youth, Assayas experienced a similar dilemma. In the end, the director stood on the side of art, but he stresses his fidelity to the ideals of May '68 at every step. One thinker who has had a particularly strong influence on Assayas is the French philosopher Guy Debord. Looking back now, we can easily see the influence that the author of The Society of the Spectacle had on many of the director's films. Following Debord's lead, Assayas laments the superficiality, ostentation and commercialization of contemporary society.
In films such as Sils Maria and his latest, Non-Fiction, Assayas emphasizes the fact that the art community is also no stranger to these problems. In this respect, the most interesting film in the French director's entire oeuvre is Irma Vep. In this self-referential satire, Assayas shows a world in which an acclaimed director suffers from such a lack of creativity that he decides to remake a classic film from 1913. As if that weren't enough, he also comes up with the absurd idea-wanting to take advantage of the popularity of Asian cinema at the time-of casting a star from Hong Kong to play the lead role.
Even under these circumstances, the director of Disorder-to this day being an avid cinephile-ultimately gives in to his faith in power of cinema. In the most beautiful scene in Irma Vep, which is emblematic of Assayas's entire oeuvre, actress Maggie Cheung leaves the set after yet another hopeless day. Still in costume, she is struck by an impulse to pull off an audacious hotel robbery. The hypnotic sequence, played out to a soundtrack by Sonic Youth, shows that the beauty of art can be emerge in passing, when we least expect it. Assayas's films are full of similar epiphanies: one of the greatest pleasures in getting to know the French director's work is that they can appear in completely different places for everyone.
"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 Disorder, Winter's Child (1989) and Paris Awakens (1991), which deal with youthful rights of passage. Or in the way Demonlover, Clean (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 Water, Disorder, Something 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 Child, Sentimental 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.
Olivier Assayas was born in Paris in 1955. A son of director Jacques Rémy, he gained initial film experience by working at his side. He graduated from the School of Fine Arts in Paris, and in 1979 he made a debut with a short film Copyright. In his writings for Cahiers du cinémahe was one of the first European film critics to observe the birth of Asian cinema. Co-writer of the book Conversations avec Bergman. Collaborated with André Téchiné. His feature debut ( Désordre, 1986) brought him the Critics Award in Venice. In 1992, he made well-received Paris Awakens, yet the breakthrough productions were Cold Water (1994) and Irma Vep (1996). He has been nominated several times for the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival - for Sentimental Destinies (2000), Demonlover (2002) and Clean (2004). He garnered fame with his 2010 film Carlos, a multi-award-winning mini-series about Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, the terrorist better known as Carlos the Jackal.
1979 Copyright (kr.m./short)
1986 Bezład / Désordre / Disorder
1989 Zimowe dziecko / L'enfant de l'hiver / Winter's Child
1991 Paryż się budzi / Paris s'éveille / Paris Awakens
1993 Nowe życie / Une nouvelle vie / A New Life
1994 Zimna woda / L’eau froide / Cold Water
1996 Irma Vep
1998 Koniec sierpnia, początek września / Fin août, début septembre / Late August, Early September
2000 Ścieżki uczuć / Les destinées sentimentales / Sentimental Destinies
2004 Czysta / Clean
2006 Zakochany Paryż (segment Quartier des Enfants Rouges) / Paris, je t'aime / Paris, I Love You
2007 Przejście / Boarding Gate
2007 Kocham kino (segment Recrudescence) / Chacun son cinéma ou Ce petit coup au coeur quand la lumière s'éteint et que le film commence / To Each His Own Cinema
2008 Pewnego lata / L’Heure d’été / Summer Hours
2012 Po maju / Après mai / Something in the Air
2014 Sils Maria
2016 Stylistka / Personal Shopper
2018 Doubles vies / Non-Fiction
Partner: Institut Français, Pologne