Heroine Chic: Female Celebrity and Identity in the Films of Olivier Assayas

Extending the punk ideal of self-expression to female leads: Maggie Cheung, Chloë Sevigny, Asia Argento, Kim Gordon, and Kristen Stewart.
Mackenzie Lukenbill

Watching a film by Olivier Assayas is a little like wandering into the bedroom of a teenager, taking in the aesthetic décor that clings to his or her walls and bookshelves—posters, pop records, hastily cut-out collages of idols, and literature—and being left to draw a logical conclusion based on these ephemeral scraps. This idea of collage, assembling or reinventing an identity, has always been a concept inherent to punk and youth culture: British punk historian Jon Savage coined the term “living collage” to describe European teenagers in the 1970s who tore apart thrifted vintage clothing at the seams to fuse and repurpose them with safety pins. Assayas’ work is essentially the filmic equivalent of that same idea: he populates his frames with torrents of ideas and surfaces and lets loose cinematographers Yorick Le Saux and Eric Gautier to pan wildly, struggling to encapsulate everything into their widescreen, handheld compositions. These objects of referendum remain fleetingly seen in the background, calling attention to themselves only in the associations that they provoke. The litany of radical texts, projected films, and folk songs casually glimpsed in Something in the Air (2012)—his elliptical, semi-autobiographical showcase of Paris teens during the student strikes of 1968—are almost never referenced, much less discussed (except for a pointed put-down of Chairman Mao’s New Clothes), and serve more as an implication of inner life than as a filmmaker showing off his record collection.

Assayas’ interest in the punk ideal of self-expression—where the derivation from conventionality is everything—as well as surface appearances holding implicit meaning, extends to his casting; particularly his female leads. Throughout his filmography he’s continually drawn to performers like Chloë Sevigny, Asia Argento, Kim Gordon, and, most recently, Kristen Stewart—all women who have been construed by press and public as being aloof and reserved, “awkward” and rebellious for not conforming to the familiar archetype of the pleasantly conventional starlet. They’re all cast in roles of agency and mystique and typically dressed in monochromatic pantsuits and oversized sunglasses. They possess a steely, cool androgyny -- exercising full control while still being undoubtedly stylish. All of these performances operate on some degree of self-referentiality. There’s a subtle assumption that the viewer is familiar with these performers and their public image, in much the same way that Godard used the celebrity of Jane Fonda and Molly Ringwald as canvases for subversion.

In this context, Assayas’ work with his ex-wife Maggie Cheung serves as his thesis, beginning with his 1996 breakthrough Irma Vep, where Cheung plays herself: an international star cast in a remake of Louis Feuillade’s silent serial Les vampires (1915). By casting an international and multicultural action heroine in a role that is emblematic of French national culture, Assayas renders Cheung transcendental—heralded as the possible savior of a film culture where she doesn’t speak a word of the language. Assayas is acutely aware of not only the national implications of Cheung’s casting as Irma Vep, but also its relation to feminism: Musidora, who originally portrayed Irma Vep in Les vampires, used the ubiquitous recognition that the role and its iconic catsuit brought to her as a feminist symbol in her public life. In 1973, the Musidora Association was founded in her honor, which would go on to host the first French women’s film festival the next year. The 1916 poster for Les vampires: les yeuxqui fascinent, a leotard-clad Musidora sprawled over a plush red seat while male eyes gaze in awe from behind a curtain, adorns the cover of Verso Books’ essential anthology Red Velvet Seat: Women’s Writings on the First Fifty Years of Cinema.

In the film Cheung is an object of desire for both sexes and increasingly alienated by the foreign culture, building up to a frenzied sequence where Cheung, alone, tears through her hotel room to the fitful strains of Sonic Youth’s “Tunic (Song for Karen),” a first-person account of Karen Carpenter’s death by anorexia and an anthem of the smothering effects of conventional female celebrity if ever there was one.

Assayas collaborated with Cheung two more times, on the experimental short Sans titre -- a grainy, textural work of flittering images that continually returns to close ups of Cheung washing her face and watching television and recalls Philippe Garrel’s work with Nico, and 2004’s Clean. Clean was the result of Assayas’s attempt to “build a character around who [Cheung] really is” in the sense of her multiculturalism and personality, and what she is interested in, as he says in the interview included on the US DVD release. Clean charts the downfall of Emily, Cheung’s character, after the death by overdose of her rocker husband, and her ostracization from the music scene where she was once royalty. In the opening sequence, Emily is given a more successful counterpart in her namesake, Emily Haines from the Canadian rock band Metric, playing herself. An electrifying phantom of what Emily could’ve been, Assayas spends a significant amount of screentime tracing with the camera Haines’ every performative twitch as she plays a grungy Canadian venue, yowling commandingly in extreme close-up. After the performance, hearing that Emily was in the crowd, Haines sneers, “she’s a junky to the bone.” Clean is a film about having a persona, that sheen of effortless cool, stolen from you and tainted, and whether or not that damage is irreversible.


Within demonlover’s (2002) coterie of bloodthirsty female executives vying for a piece of a highly lucrative contract with an international pornography giant, Chloë Sevigny’s Elise stands out for obvious reasons. In a sartorial inversion of Assayas’ typical heroines, she’s a blonde with a penchant for bright red lipstick, flowery blouses, and overalls; essentially a designer wardrobe made up to highlight the fact that even within this desolate landscape of icily tinted glass offices (and even when she’s speaking French), this is still Chloë, indie film’s cool girl laureate.

Conversely, Connie Nielsen’s Diane, the frigid corporate striver who dominates her, is all business chic in black. The film opens with Diane injecting a drug into co-worker Karen’s (Dominique Reymond) Evian on a first-class flight. Once out of commission, Karen seizes both her position and her assistant, Elise, only to later find herself threatened by the arrival of the American Elaine (Gina Gershon). In spite of their ulterior motives, the three women in this rotating hierarchy of deviancy are portrayed as essentially interchangeable. They even look similar, with the same dark outfits and short-cropped dark hair. While the three brunettes attempt to cunningly navigate their way through an increasingly dangerous and bleak set of boardrooms and bedrooms, the blonde Elise plays as their foil: the put-upon yet autonomous assistant, mumbling and scheming her way towards victory.

Assayas’ film shares pretty firm theoretical ground with Robin Morgan’s 1989 book The Demon Lover: On the Sexuality of Terrorism, in which Morgan writes that violence has been eroticized as the means to reaching a phalleocentric ideal of power. This has led to what she calls “atrocity fatigue,” where terrorists in contemporary times have “become Everyman. This is the democratization of violence.” Assayas plays off of this notion of desensitization by viscerally cutting between violent images being shown incessantly on video screens to reverse shots of placid, disaffected faces (once even used as an editing gag, cutting suddenly and loudly from a parked car to a television screen showing a different car exploding). Quiet scenes are often interrupted with lingering shots of video game carnage and brutal anime porn. In Morgan’s view, which seems to be shared by Assayas, Diane and her ilk are “women of the Demon Lover;” attempting to reach success by using their bodies as weapons of capitalism.

It’s an easy guess that Assayas is going to side with Sevigny in the film, herself an embodiment of the punk ethos of the self-made “living collage,” but the sequence where the feminine Elise establishes her dominance over Diane is one of  demonlover’s best, as well as a turning point of sorts, after which the narrative of the film is thrown into total chaos. Elise overtakes Diane in her car under the guise of delivering a message from the bedridden Karen, commanding her with a clearly unloaded gun to drive into the depths of a subterranean parking garage. As the car drives deeper down the entrance ramp, the surreal, jittery soundscape (courtesy of Sonic Youth) dissipates and Elise’s voice grows louder and louder in the mix, alternating between muttering and feral, manic shouts; not exactly typical masculine action star behavior, but by the end of the trance-like scene it’s clear which character will emerge from the film unscathed.


“I get clothes made. They’re pretty cheap, but young people in the West love them. You wouldn’t know the brand. We sell in bulk to chains that distribute under their own labels.”

Boarding Gate (2007) takes place in a world of false exteriors, where even the blandest capitalistic monopoly is a front for sordid deeds and shady transactions. When Kim Gordon, art punk priestess and frontwoman of Sonic Youth, delivers the above speech towards the end of the film, voice dripping with disaffected smarm, it feels like the punchline the film has been building to. The idea of selling a mass-produced rendering of “cool” holds more validity when it’s Kim Gordon doing the peddling. Gordon, who dumped her own clothing line -- the early 90s skater brand X-Girl (which helped launch the career of fellow Assayas heroine Chloë Sevigny) -- to Japanese investors when she thought it was getting too tacky. She is the film’s main authority figure; able to intervene in the cryptic action of the plot at a moment’s notice. It’s a great performance; she plays this phony, hollowed out and commercialized version of herself with a swagger and a smirk suggesting that she’s just in on the joke enough not to overplay it.

Asia Argento, as the film’s hapless central character, is no less brilliantly cast. In a film that both is-and-isn’t-quite an allegory for international commerce, she is the exploited export; roughly changing hands between meddlesome alien powers beginning with Michael Madsen’s character. Madsen functions as a saggy, wheezing figure of misguidedly prurient and yet overly confident masculinity, who appears to be a metonymic stand-in for the United States as a whole. By 2007 Argento had had a few years to recover from her first foray into the Hollywood action market that had so desperately tried to seduce her (Rob Cohen’s xXx in 2002), and was still a few years off from denouncing acting altogether over Twitter. Here her character is forced to begrudgingly accept the role of action heroine, just as it was thrust upon her by the draw of Western industry.


In Assayas’ latest film, Clouds of Sils Maria, the notion of the performers as commentary on themselves is no longer subtext. When the film played at the New York Film Festival last year, Assayas talked openly about how the genesis of the film was simply his desire to write a film for Juliette Binoche, and “how she is and how I fantasize her to be.” Binoche is a few years younger than Assayas, and their careers follow roughly the same trajectory: her breakout role was in 1985’s Rendez-vous, which Assayas co-wrote, and the two collaborated again on 2008’s Summer Hours. In Sils Maria, the pair avoid the tired trope of the aging actress by making Binoche’s Maria Enders still successful, making a solid attempt at staying technologically current, and certainly still beautiful. The conflict is not one of physical decline but the notion of keeping the perspective of youth while aging, which Maria struggles to grapple with as she prepares to play the role of the “older woman” in the play that made her famous as a youth, opposite a Hollywood starlet (Chloë Grace Moretz) in Ender’s original role. Suddenly her beloved play has lost its incisive, romantic luster, and Maria finds her role superficial and hopelessly pathetic. As Ender’s assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) says, “the text is like an object; it’s gonna change perspective depending on where you’re standing.”

Stewart serves as Ender’s youthful, modern foil and it becomes clear that while the film may have been structured around Binoche, Assayas is more drawn to, and sympathetic towards, Stewart’s character. Stewart performs with a relentless spontaneity and nervous energy  -- all stuttering half-sentences and impulsive interjections -- that’s better suited to Assayas’ directorial style than Binoche’s more mannered and rehearsed method. Assayas even gives Stewart her own variation of Maggie Cheung’s “Song for Karen” freakout; here a hungover solo drive scored by Primal Scream’s “Kowalski,” an intense pop disruption from the stately European glamour of the rest of the film.

Sils Maria is at its most engaging when it’s a duet, such as a sequence where the two debate the merits of a Hollywood superhero movie over drinks. Valentine comes across as whip-smart and endlessly endearing, becoming frustrated in her inability to drag Enders away from her long-eclipsed past and into the present, whereas Enders seems stodgy and dismissive by comparison. Personal identity becomes all the more important when the two characters are placed within the hermetically sealed world of a Swiss mountaintop estate to rehearse. The play is closely related to Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, with Valentine assuming the role of the younger assistant, the part made famous by Maria. The dialogue of the play bleeds together with the diagetic dialogue, become nearly indistinguishable, and within the forced entrustment of their relationship their identities become so entangled that they appear to be two sides of a single mind viewing the text in parallel but opposite ways. The only point of reference becomes their individual celebrity, such as a pointed diatribe from Stewart about the tabloid-bait star played by Chloë Grace Moretz: “I love her. She’s not completely antiseptic like the rest of Hollywood.” Between that line and an anecdote about a brutal, very public breakup between Grace Moretz’ character and her celebrity boyfriend, it becomes unavoidable that Assayas has cast Stewart in a role that allows her to comment on herself and her own public image.

When her character finally and suddenly disappears, it casts Maria adrift into a contemporary present that she’s not prepared to handle, where technology and modern fame present a spectral nightmare that she’s unequipped to face without Valentine’s youthful vigor, and briefly raises the question of whether Valentine wasn’t just the ghost of Maria’s former glory all along.

Assayas is occasionally accused of superficiality; imbibing on surface sheen and flash to up his coolness quotient. But this surface is a connective membrane that subsumes both our preconceived notions and knowledge of the actors on screen as well as Assayas’ own. Who these people are in reality is never far from our minds, and this becomes part of the experience; a tool of familiarity in order to advance farther into the alluringly inscrutable.

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