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Bringing Down the House, Part II: A Conversation with Olivier Assayas

An interview with the French director of "Summer Hours".
Daniel Kasman, David Phelps
David Phelps has provided a more than ample introduction on the Notebook to Olivier Assayas' new film, Summer Hours, which can be found here.  He and I had the opportunity to sit down with the writer/director before his film premiered at the New York Film Festival.
NOTEBOOK: I thought it would be interesting to start at Boarding Gate (2007), and move from there to Summer Hours, and what it’s like to move from a film that, for me, is about a subject that feels so modern, so mobile, about traveling through indeterminate spaces without finding a root to grasp on to, versus a film that is all about roots and old world objects that have meaning and stability.
OLIVIER ASSAYAS: It’s obviously a difficult question to answer. One way to see it is that it is important for me that when I am making Boarding Gate that the filmmaker making Boarding Gate is the same filmmaker making Summer Hours, and the same thing—when I’m making Summer Hours I’m the same filmmaker making Boarding Gate. I just believe in dialectics! {laughs} What I am saying is that when I am dealing with the modern world and the modern story, it’s not for aesthetic purposes. I suppose that the form of the film, the style of the film, is also about its meaning. I suppose that when I am dealing with a subject like Summer Hours stylistically it is fairly different, but again some of what the film is about is within its texture, which is really something that is forgotten in terms of how people see movies now. They think movies are all about their morals, their subjects in the flattest sense, but ultimately no, movies are living creatures, and their style is as meaningful as what they superficially deal with.
Another way to deal with it is something that is very important to me, which is that we live in different parallel worlds, and eventually some of those worlds belong to the past, some of them belong to the future, and I think it is part of our culture and part of the way we live that we move from one space to the other, kind of seamlessly. What I’m trying to say is that the world of Boarding Gate or demonlover (2002) completely co-habits with the world of Summer Hours. Even when I’m thinking about a movie like demonlover, the character of Volf, the boss played by Jean-Baptiste Malartre, he lives in Summer Hours’s world; that’s the place he is running his business from. That is such an important element of, I don’t know—I was about to say modern society but I think societies at every single moment—that you have this co-existence of time lines or time frames, and it is important to be able with your movies to grasp that. If you want to deal with modernity, modernity is not about making Boarding Gate, it is about knowing that Boarding Gate and Summer Hours do co-exist in one way or another, I think one would be incomplete without the other in strange ways.
NOTEBOOK: Right. One of the things that really fascinated me about your new film is that the world the characters inhabit is not really the world they see in Summer Hours. The world they inhabit is in Asia, is far away—it is the world of Boarding Gate. This is something I was thinking about all through your films, which are all about starting new lives and people starting out and going new places, and they are almost all about people who leave the past for some new world and break with traditions. The only other film I can think of besides for Summer Hours that is as concentrated on the past they are leaving behind than the future they are starting is Les Destinées sentimentales, which is another film that is very much concerns with nature and technology and the dialectic between the two. I was wondering if there was some sort of parallel where it is this concern, even in Boarding Gate, that technology is taking over the world and everything is being lost.
ASSAYAS: It’s similarly about people trying to adapt to a changing world. Somehow, demonlover also. If you take Les Destinées sentimentales, it’s someone who tries to keep a grasp on the world based on values he has inherited, and gradually he understands that those values don’t work that well, don’t function. They just give you a set of moral values; with moral values you can be at peace with yourself, but you can’t deal with how the world is actually changing. In a sense, ultimately when Jean [played by Charles Berling] dies at the end in Les Destineés, he’s been an artist, he’s been doing his best, he’s been creating stuff he’s proud of, but ultimately the business is a disaster. The business he has been past by his parents and his grandparents is doomed because the world has changed, it doesn’t function like that any more. In that sense, Frédéric, who is played by the same actor inSummer Hours, is also someone who is trying to adapt his set of morals which come from the previous generations obviously, to the changing world and at some point he loses his grasp on it, and he accepts it because there is no other choice. We don’t live in a world that we have a grasp on. The way the world is changing, transforming…no one asked you or me if we were okay with the way it is changing, we just have to accept that that is the way it is going.
NOTEBOOK: I liked that you made him [Frédéric] an economist. So his whole job is to deal with these things that are very transitory and day to day affairs, even those aren’t reliable at all. He even writes a book about how you can’t even trust that, so there is this idea of this whole flux, of being so lost…
ASSAYAS: Yes, it is obvious that people now—they trust in the economy. Well, maybe after this week a little less, but still I don’t think it will change much. Economy is presented as some kind of “revealed truth,” it is just like religion for me. There is no logic to what happens in the economy, and still you have politicians, people keep telling you “this is good for the economy, this is how it should be done” because “that’s how the economy works” and so on and so forth, as if it were some kind of truth. And people just swallow it. It’s this kind of logic that there is something bigger than us that is “the economy” that creates a world that is going in a direction no one has any control on, because the economy is some kind of living organism that is taking over people’s lives or the values that are at work within the world where we live our adult lives. What I’m trying to say, or what Frédéric thinks [laughs], and it’s not very optimistic, is that he reminds that economy is not fact, it is ideology. And as much as you have to respect facts, you are allowed to discuss ideologies; you should be allowed to have your say, because ultimately whatever truth you stand for is as good as whatever truth economy stands for. Ultimately we should be conscious that theoretically we have some space to decide what we want and what we don’t want, we should not be intimidated by economy.
NOTEBOOK: I wanted to go back to what you said earlier, when you described film as a “living creature.” I actually wanted to paraphrase a question that was suggested through Michael Sicinski's piece on Summer Hours. He asked, if I remember correctly, a rhetorical question about a film that treated objects, historical objects, cultural objects, artistic objects as having both a sort of personal meaning, involved with memory, and a cultural/social/historical meaning that overlap, but on the whole are separate (and by the end of the film one moves through the other). I wanted to know how you saw film as an object that could be positioned like that, how Summer Hours itself is an object that does or does not function as the objects in the film do.
ASSAYAS: Ultimately, films are different. Films are different because films are whatever you make of them, in the sense that they are meant to be viewed in a theater (or on the home video or whatever you wish, show them on your phone or whatever). Basically they are meant to be shown in theaters; as long as they are connected to the theater the experience—and this is the great thing about films—is not tainted. You can watch in a cinémathèque a movie of Murnau or by Fritz Lang made three generations ago and basically those movies are whatever you make of them. If you want to worship them and deal with them as icons, it’s your problem—it’s wrong, it’s completely wrong, because to me what we should connect with are how films are relevant, how they deal with our present in one way or another. It’s all in the eyes of the viewer. It’s not like paintings. Paintings—it’s more complicated. Some stuff is meant to be in a museum, like when you have a Richard Serra sculpture that is forty feet high, it’s just like tons of metal, you aren’t going to have that in your living room, it is meant to be in a museum. There’s space, they belong there, it’s okay. But when you have a painting by Cézanne and it’s a beautiful, great painting, and all of a sudden you have twenty similar paintings in a museum, it kind of destroys them, they become boring and it’s horrible. It’s sad, because they are not meant to be in a museum next to a similar painting by the same or similar artist done in a similar period. When you go to a museum and you have all those paintings by Italian “primitive” artists, pre-Giotto period paintings, and you have all those Madonnas that look that same—and it’s so depressing because every single one of those paintings are admirable, are absolutely beautiful and it belongs in some chapel somewhere in the mountains of Tuscany, and you would bump into them and they would bring tears to your eyes. You see them in a museum one after another after another, and you feel it’s industrial art, and they do nothing for you. What I’m saying is that in terms of the relationship of art to museums, something is indeed lost. In terms of movies, a different problem. It’s more culture. As long as our vision of film is not fucked up by cinephilia, everything is kind of okay.
NOTEBOOK: And this brings us back to Summer Hours. I’m totally fascinated that you got this funded by a museum. [Summer Hours is part of a group of several films, including Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon and Hong Sang-soo’s Night and Day that collaborated with shooting inside the Musée d'Orsay] It’s a movie where the museum is the ultimate proof that these things [works of art] have been taken out of context and put into a setting where they represent a past detached from the present. This seems to be your fear not just about paintings, but a fear in all your movies that we will be lost from this past, we’re going to be lost from natural, lost from having these things matter in our everyday lives.
ASSAYAS: It’s about the process of alienation, really, in modern society. The way we lost touch with the reality of things, we are obsessed with the representation of things, we get further and further from actual real life emotions and real life textures of whatever we deal with because we live in a world that is increasing complex, multilayered, and it is so incredibly difficult just to make your way in it keeping in touch with some kind of tangible reality. And not be fooled by appearances and ideologies—again. But the interesting thing in terms of our relationship to the museum is that when I was making the film I was scared, scared in the sense that the Musée d'Orsay was helping us—I mean, they did not put a cent into the film, but still they were supportive and really nice. When I was making the film I felt very bad, like I was cheating them, because the screenplay is kind of subtle, and they are not really used to reading screenplays, so they aren’t sure what it is about, they are fairly naïve about it, and they will see the film and feel cheated! Like I have been dishonest or something. But when they saw the film they really loved it. Obviously, when you are a curator in the museum, those questions are the questions you ask yourself all the time, they are the essential questions about what your job is. Because when you’re a curator, the issue is what is going to be passed on, what is essential in the art works you are displaying, and you ultimately love all of them and you hope that they will just glow. But you are in a museum and you are working within the limitations of what a museum is, and it’s all extremely frustrating. So when they saw the film they were face to face with problems that are their full-time preoccupation.
NOTEBOOK: I think there is a tension in what you are saying that we are losing touch with our past, we are losing touch with all our roots, and that modern society is so obsessed with day to day concerns that we lose touch with these greater things. So on the one hand we need to get back to nature, but on the other hand if we go back to nature we lose touch with the sense of the present reality and what’s going on in the world. I wanted to talk about the ending of Summer Hours, which I think is really magnificent, because it almost resolves this tension. Suddenly we can see how nature can support everyday lives, it becomes relevant to them, and suddenly we see after a whole movie of these people who have been discussing everything in terms of their economic value, their exchange value and what they are going to be able to do with it, suddenly we see people who are actually able to take advantage of the space, use it, to play with it, to make it nature, even if it is the last time they’ll ever see it, to make it actually matter to them. And it’s also the point where we get your full “style” again; up to that point the movie’s been relatively still…that’s not really a question.
ASSAYAS: No, but to me it’s essential for one more reason. Ultimately, it’s the scene for me when we finally get to the point. Sylvie [played by Alice de Lencquesaing] is the one person who has completely grasped what is going on, and she does not care so much about losing the house or losing the artwork, she doesn’t care so much what’s in the Musée d'Orsay or not in the Musée d'Orsay, what is being sold or not sold, what she relates to are the landscapes her grand-uncle painted. Because ultimately it is how art kind of “shines it’s light on the world,” or something like that—I don’t want to sound pompous about it—but what they are losing are the landscapes, it is the ghosts, they are losing the presence of the ghosts, of the magic that has been happening through the art of her grand-uncle. It has nothing to do with money or the art market or whatever; it is so much simpler than that. And she says it so simply with her own words, but ultimately she understood it in a much more profound way than her father, aunt or whomever.
NOTEBOOK: I’m trying to remember the line, at the part…after we see them crying, all these characters dealing with the estate, Sylvie is the only one who actually says “my grandmother is dead.” But another thing about her is she is almost like one of your characters from your very, very early movies—Paris Awakens (1991) or Cold Water (1994), or maybe even Disorder (1986). She’s the rebel, she’s going out and stealing things, she’s this juvenile delinquent in a way. But then the funny thing is she’s the one who is actually much more in touch. So it seems with these teenagers [at the end] you are returning to your earlier movies in a way, now putting them in a completely new context of nature, which is not where we expected them to go from Paris Awakens.
ASSAYAS: To me it is one of the issues in making the film, strangely. Because, you know, that’s where I grew up, I grew up in the countryside. There’s always this longing, to reconnecting with the landscapes that surround Paris. And of course, when I represent teenagers I’m always going to put them in the middle of nature! To me, what was interesting, what was important, was that I could deal with two different generations on similar terms, in the sense that when I’m with the grownups—when I’m with Frédéric or Adrienne—I’m 100% with them, and when I’m with Sylvie, I’m 100% with her. And I can project myself in her in the same way I can project myself in Frédéric or Adrienne [played by Juliette Binoche] in terms of the problematics. Also, I can structure the character of Sylvie in a way that’s different from the way I’ve structures similar characters in my previous films, in the sense that she’s kind of there lurking in the background. She’s both visible and invisible. She’s like a lot of Summer Hours, where the background is as important as the foreground. Often in the film there is this logic that there is so much stuff that we don’t see or analysis, but two scenes later actually we realize that this thing in the background has this meaning or had an echo we hadn’t imagined. And of course it’s the same with Sylvie, it’s thinking that we think are invisible or secondary—like the vases—and suddenly we realize they carry the actual truth that is going on.
NOTEBOOK: It’s an incredible move, because we start with the grandmother and move to her children, and then we move to their children. Most of this movie is about this one generation giving way to the modern generation, but then we see a glimpse, a proof that they’ll have to give it up to this next generation. It’s this whole flux.
ASSAYAS: The film is very obviously about the passage of time. In that sense, it’s similar it’s like Late Autumn, Early September (1998), which is also a movie about how things get lost within the passage of time. How they get lost, and how they survive, simultaneously, through the passage of time.
NOTEBOOK: I was actually thinking about that film too, because I remember you saying after you made that film that you were done with naturalism, done making films about your personal life, and you wanted to explore different parts of the world in genre films. Yesterday [at the NYFF press conference] you referred to this film as a genre film, but at the same time it does feel like a return to naturalism…
ASSAYAS: Oh yes, I never wanted to break with that. It’s just that after making Late Autumn and Les Destinées sentimentales I did not feel at that specific moment I could go further in that direction. Those ultimately are very character-driven, very “French” films, both for different periods but they are very similar in texture. At that point I needed to move on, to open up to the big world—or something. But I suppose that you always have to go back to wherever you come from. I’m sure I’ll always at different stages have to go back to that texture, because ultimately it is what is closest in terms of my own emotions. I mean, this is not my family, not my world etc. exactly, but still it’s obviously inspired by my own feelings, emotions.
NOTEBOOK: I hope these are the people you are hanging out with more than the characters from Boarding Gate!
ASSAYAS: [Laughs] I love Asia [Argento]!
NOTEBOOK: One of the things I love about the film is how you define the characters and the associations with them through their use of the house. I find the house almost more interesting than the furniture and the paintings in them, because it is a space people can pass through rather than an object you can define and use. It’s not like you don’t use the house, but it’s more that you inhabit it, temporarily. If you were to break the film down into three movements by the way the house is used, the way the grandmother lives there in the beginning, the cataloging of its items and their value after she dies, and the way the kids re-invent it at the end with their temporary party. It’s amazing, it’s like they get exactly how the house should be used, as this temporary thing to engage with personally, but which they’ll leave at the end of the day. I’m sure that some people will think this film is not similar to Boarding Gate or demonlover, but I feel like the use of the house, especially at the climactic party at the end, is exactly how those films use space.
ASSAYAS: I think I re-structured a lot of the film based on the house. I had a hard time finding it, and at some point I was really depressed because I thought I’d never find the right house.
NOTEBOOK: What were you looking for in it?
ASSAYAS: A house within nature, the presence of nature. And I could not find it. I found a lot of really beautiful houses that were just put there in the middle of a garden, but with this one you just feel that it has grown organically out of the landscape. And also it has all those corners…it is a house that has been built so that they kept adding rooms and corridors, and you can move seamlessly between the inside and the outside, you open the door and you’re in the woods. It’s magical; it’s an extraordinary cinematic space. So I tried to make the best, the full use of it. This involved re-inventing the scene and how it was going on, according to the very specific space of the house. That has to do with the process of making this film in general, you know I had to adapt to the place, to the actors, I kind of re-invented every shooting day—adding lines—I’ve done things like adding scenes, just sketches here and there, which is something I never really did before. I transformed a scene here and there, but [inventing] actual scenes, I’ve never done that. The film is so much about the relationship of natural to individuals to art, that I obviously wanted to have a space that symbolizes that. The film ends up being also very much about space and how we transforms space by the way we live. The beginning of the film, it [the house] is a very cultural space. Every room has its own purpose—even the garden—this is where you have coffee, this is where you have tea, this is where you sit down, this is the living room, here is the kitchen. It’s like in a classic ancient home where everything is codified and the circulations are codified, everything has its purpose and blah, blah, blah. And then it’s kind of profaned by the experts, when the experts come in like archeologists coming into the Pharaohs tomb or something, everything is profaned by their look, which is all about what is worth what. And all of a sudden they start manipulating sacred objects, because they are men of the market. But somehow by the end, what I wanted to show was how it has gone back to nature, how it has being re-absorbed by nature, because all of a sudden the kids—it’s also how I use the camera—just cross the house, and all of a sudden there is no hierarchy between the spaces…
NOTEBOOK: No boundaries…
ASSAYAS: Yes, no boundaries. You jump by a window, you come in by the kitchen, you go out this way. It’s become one with the garden, one with the woods. It’s a return back to a state of nature or something.
NOTEBOOK: Since we need to finish up, I thought I would ask about your other new film [Eldorado/Preljocaj], the one you are presenting tonight at the French Institute Alliance Française tonight…
ASSAYAS: I made it simultaneously, which is absurd, moving from one film to another, even when I was editing I was like editing the two films at the same time. Which was very frustrating because I love the process of it [making the film], and I would love to do it with less pressure but ultimately I had no choice. I always had this notion that cinema and choreography had mysterious connections. I always thought that whatever I was doing in terms of structuring a scene, using my camera, etc. had to do with choreography. Including the way the camera moves. But it’s a very abstract idea, and I have very little notion of modern dance, so when Angelin Preljocaj called me up—a very famous choreographer in France, I mean he is kind of world famous, but he is based in France—he offered for me to collaborate with him. Arte, which is a French-German cultural channel, wanted to have a film about his work. He said “why don’t we try to do something together, because I believe in collaboration,” so I thought this was very generous of him. I liked the notion that he came to me because he was interested in my work, and we met and I liked him very much. Other art forms you feel are very mysterious, you don’t know how they work, and all of a sudden you bump into a person who is doing the same job you are doing, I mean it’s a slightly different field but he’s asking the same question, has the same issues, the same problems. We kind of instantly clicked, so I said “well maybe this is an opportunity to look into choreography and see if my ideas stick.” And he was working on something I was attracted to, his next piece was going to be based on a work by [Karlheinz] Stockhausen, and I’m interested in electronic music and the work of Stockhausen. It’s incredibly abstract, I’m not just listening to it for my pleasure, it’s genius, he’s a genius, he’s an amazing, amazing artist.
So it also was an opportunity to approach something that was fairly mysterious to me. It’s great when all of a sudden you have the opportunity to go into areas you never had the chance to go, so I kind of followed the process of creating this new ballet, and then I filmed the actual ballet. It’s two different films that are interconnected, which should be watched back to back, because the texture is completely different. What I enjoy about the process was meeting Stockhausen, filming Stockhausen; we did the last important interview he did, as he died like two months later. I was filming myself, I was holding the DV-cam; I shot the film with Yorick Le Saux, who was the DP for Boarding Gate. We each had a camera, and when I’m shooting narrative films I’m with the actors, I don’t want to be behind the camera—and also I don’t have the skills, maybe I could be a cameraman but it is too much trouble and it is distracting, you end up thinking about technical issues—so I’m always with my actors. But working on a documentary, like when I made a music documentary like Noise (2006), the opportunities to film myself, to play with the camera…the DV camera is not intimidating, it is always in focus, it is always more or less always on the right aperture, so you don’t have to think about technique, you have to think about the shots. And specifically filming the abstraction of music, being absorbed by the physicality of the bodies of dancers, it’s kind of a fascinating object to follow. It was extremely interesting.


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