MUBI's retrospective The Parallel Worlds of Olivier Assayas is showing May 3 – June 11, 2019 in the United States.
When a filmmaker’s body of work is as prolific as it is varied, the paths to profile split two: the explanatory chronology that threads together A-to-B episodes of a life, and the thematic retrofit that groups one film with an unsuspecting other. But both are really about the same, hopeful thing: that the right arrangement of themes and biographic detail will yield some incandescent truth about their practice. With Olivier Assayas, the truths are dropped generously in correspondence—“Cinema has to be light,” he has told Kent Jones, and later, Film Comment1—always too articulate and discerning an interviewee to not betray his past as a writer and (reluctant) critic at Cahiers du cinéma, then helmed by Serge Daney and Toubiana. Assayas is, in fact, generous enough to have written a memoir, A Post-May Adolescence: Letter to Alice Debord, which plumbs his early encounters with the social criticism of Guy Debord and the Situationist International. A passage lays out his critical awareness the film medium, as well as his Bazinian optimism: “Didn’t Debord write La Societé du Spectacle while simultaneously making autobiographical films devoted to preserving from the ravages of time…life as it offered itself to him at certain moments of grace? And did he not also make these films so that, in them, might radiate the glow of the faces of those he had loved?” To look to the founding Situationist and find most remarkable his animating grace: a sure sign of someone who knows what he wants to see.
Though he’d always wanted to be a filmmaker, Assayas officially arrived at cinema after pit stops at painting and music. In the thick of the French post-punk scene, he directed his first short, Copyright (1979), which Daney and Toubiana saw and programmed at a Cahiers showcase. After a decade of radical leftist coverage, the new editors rebooted the journal and invited Assayas aboard as a writer. He had no intentions to become a film critic, but, over the course of five years, found at Cahiers a safe ground to structure his own education in film history and theory. With his screenwriter father (once an assistant to Max Ophüls), Assayas shared an interest in painting, which had been his initial medium of choice. “When you’re creating an abstract canvas,” he said, “you arrive intuitively, very quickly, at solving extremely complex questions.” It’s a mode of working that explains his near-annual output since 1979, a mind so relentlessly curious it senses new projects as old ones barely come to a close. Even now, as his latest, Non-Fiction, opens in theaters, he’s already spent time in Cuba filming an upcoming political drama. This need for near simultaneous conception and execution speaks to the kind of stories that compel him—those borne of a fleeting but pressing fascination, anchored enough to the present for intuitive direction. He doesn’t use storyboards, preferring instead to design shots in the morning while staying open to their constant evolutions. The whole premise of Irma Vep (1996), he has said, was “whatever comes up.” In a word (his): light.
So comes with lightness a sense of play, inquisitive repetition for repetition’s sake. The movie star finds herself undone by metatextual puppeteering in Irma Vep and Clouds of Sils Maria (2014); the uncanny otherworlds of technology seduce in demonlover (2002) and Personal Shopper (2016). Assayas’s thematic loops reveal a fascination with change as much as continuity. His two most autobiographical films, Cold Water (1994) and Something in the Air (2012), rinse the past of any embalmed idealism and reanimate it with the vagaries of the present. Cold Water, commissioned by French TV network Arte, for a series called Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge, was his fifth feature film, but the first one that showed him cinema’s capacity to resurrect feelings long lost. In its wintery vision of youth adrift, there are echoes of Robert Bresson’s The Devil, Probably, though the latter’s nihilism is defused into something more ambiguous. Virginie Ledoyen and Cyprien Fouquet star as Christine and Gilles, two teens in 70s France beset by the inconvenient belief that real life is where their parents aren’t. The film’s infamous party scene began as six or seven pages in the script, but wound up claiming 25 minutes of runtime and taking five days to shoot. It’s a definitive moment for a viewer encountering Assayas’s work, but also for his filmmaking process; the director speaks of the shoot as if it were an art piece itself, that “whoever was there, who enjoyed the energy of reconstructing the 70s, and of staging it in those nights in the idle of the woods…they experienced something that’s possibly stronger than what ends up on the screen.” The camera drifts through the bone bare rooms of a crumbling house, filled only with smoking teens blasting the likes of Janis Joplin, Alice Cooper, and Leonard Cohen, whose songs pace the scene as though they’d written it themselves. A raging bonfire cuts through the black night, fueled by dead branches and old cane chairs. Then, the loss that comes with a sudden dawn, Nico’s “Janitor of Lunacy”ringing low and loud as the sky shifts to early morning blues.
There is a similar, 70s-set party in Something in the Air, though the crisp winter becomes a languorous summer of patterned kaftans and burning haystacks, and the nameless rebellion reified into (seemingly) nameable politics. Assayas’s shaggy haired avatar, Gilles (tellingly, with a lover also named Christine), is pulled one way by painterly aspirations for a beaux-arts education, and another, by the leftist politics of a post-68 student movement. His father is a screenwriter adapting Maigret for television, always at work in clean, pressed suits and flanked by leather-bound books in a grand library or the glassy box of somewhere decidedly corporate. Gilles and his comrades spray paint anarchist symbols and wheatpaste posters decrying police brutality onto the walls of their high school, but their initial burst of action protracts into months of talk and minivan shuttling from one sun-drenched commune to another. The talk sounds like: “Revolutionary syntax is the individualistic style of the petite bourgeoisie,” and “Cinema is for a future agenda.” In the teeming sun and verdure, nostalgia is a trick of the light—Assayas centers an indolence that blunts any idealization of the decade’s politics. It’s a sharp turn from the historical analysis that structures Carlos (2010), a lengthy international co-production that ties the media narrative of its infamous subject to its Cold War context. Something in the Air is grounded by his presentism—“it’s not deconstructing the 1970s; it’s immersed in the 70s. It’s the 1970s seen from the angle of the 1970s.” And there was, in so many words, something in the air, but revolutions are more elusive than the feelings that spirit them to consciousness.
In Carlos, political allegiances are distorted by the media magnetism of its contentious subject, Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, the Venezuelan-born, Russian-educated terrorist around whom an international mythos swirled in the early 70s. Just as the small screen inception of Cold Water found a cinematic second life, Carlos came to Assayas pre-conceived and funded largely by TV networks, though he insistently shot in widescreen, on 35mm, and relied on long takes. His interest in the figure of Sanchez—codenamed “Carlos” and then nicknamed “the Jackal” by the press—had a vaguely autobiographic slant: the high-profile rue Toullier killings took place in Assayas’s neighborhood and on a street he frequented near daily. His own involvement in the post-May student movement gave him a contemporaneous perspective on the militant’s ideological alienation; Carlos was, at the time, unaffiliated with local French leftist groups, who found him generally suspect, but purported commitment to both third world politics and Palestinian liberation. With Carlos, the new challenge was its narrative scope: the film’s six-hour runtime spans over two decades of its subject’s life, organized in an elliptical three-part structure. Its pacing seems inverse to his other films, but some scenes bear traces of his incremental style. As Assayas tells Artforum in a 1999 interview for Last August, Last September (1998), he is interested in a dramaturgy specific to new Taiwanese cinema, one that “involves a particular way of describing time, of describing the progression of action: You’ll have fragments of the same reality, and sometimes time is not moving.”
Or it moves ahead of us in covert strides, as in 2008’s Summer Hours, which began as a centenary project for the Musée d’Orsay. The film’s focus on a (very French) family whose interactions take place largely against a Renoir-like vision of nature recalls Assayas’ first and only literary adaptation, Les destinées sentimentales (2000), though without its hefty plot and three hour runtime. After the death of a matriarch, the family of a celebrated painter, Paul Berthier, wrestles with the logistics of his legacy and estate. In a Criterion Collection interview, Assayas explains how the script began as an abstract reflection on the ontology of art but soon became bound with an exploration of basic human sentiment. His maternal grandfather had been a Hungarian painter of some renown, and in the lead up to his mother’s imminent passing, he’d felt suddenly confronted with an odious future of copyright requests and legacy paperwork, but by also an apprehension of intergenerational loss. The artists dies, and then those who knew him best, leaving only the objects made and shared, parceled off into public and private collections, pawed at by auctioneers and valuation experts. Even the banal vases and chairs that furnish the Berthier house accrue some secret power by dint of their age and durability. Geoffrey O’Brien writes of the film’s strange, object sentience: “in this process of objects moving from hand to hand and from generation to generation, the living people can be seen in a certain light as mere accessories. When art becomes for once not background or clue or symptom, but the central focus of a story, it turns into something eerie and incomprehensible.” Like in Cold Water, the pivotal party scene in Summer Hours uses youth as the backdrop for an elegy. On the Berthier estate, rooms of family lore are cleared out for new owners, only the garden left as is, its rose-flecked hedges skirting the old house. Teens fly up the dirt path armed with snacks and speakers, repurposing the rooms that housed Odilon Redon panels and Art Deco treasures with their carousing agenda. If these walls could talk.
Though films like Summer Hours and Cold Water can feel hermetic, Assayas’ oeuvre reveals a site-hopping contemporaneity. In demonlover (2002), a self-confessed “reverse-shot” of his work at the time, Assayas turns to the corporate netherworlds marked by glass cubicles and ergonomic chairs in the palest imitation of an techno-thriller. demonlover courts genre beats but plays them at its own, obscure pace, helped by the preponderance of transitory settings—hotels, airports, conference rooms—and their stultifying enclaves of dead time. Here, the glossy internationalism of corporate space houses a plot slightly less clinical: two French companies vie for a contract with a Tokyo-based hentai producer, both with the goal of (surprise) dominating the market. Crucially, this moribund world “completely co-habits with the world of Summer Hours,” Assayas has told MUBI. Like the later Boarding Gate (2007), the turn to slick surface and tech is a nod to the strange multiverse of global capital and all the simultaneous money flows that sustain the infrastructures of fantasy imaging—pornographic or cinematic—that also sustain the rarefied climes of heritage museums. In demonlover, Assayas centers a contradiction: if his work largely offers a vision of cinema as a humanizing counterpoint to the isolating techniques of industry, what becomes of a film about industry?
This oeuvre-spanning read of parallel worlds works as a blueprint for Personal Shopper, which moves, quiet and assured, between environs that seem too incongruous for a single film to juggle. Early on, Kristen Stewart’s twin-in-mourning, Maureen, Googles Swedish painter and mystic Hilma Af Klint on her iPhone, and settles into an introductory video on the train, tiny screen in hand. It continues as she alights and walks through the station, then as she rides an escalator, then stops at a cafe. Later, in a grand, empty house, she watches a ghost violently vomit ectoplasm. All this—and a mystery homicide—set against the vicarious glamour of her day job, chaperoning designer jewels and gowns meant for a body in the spotlight. As in demonlover, these stray genre beats are a conduit for something else. In an interview with Filmmaker, Assayas returns to his painter days for an allegory: “I kind of paint a canvas, and genre is a color. So if I need red, I use red. I’m not painting the whole canvas red.” Maureen believes another world glimmers alongside our physical one and, as a medium, spends the film waiting for her twin brother’s green light from the afterlife. Waiting, but also reaching, a gesture without which there can be nothing between worlds, or people. The possibility of contact is so exhilarating it turns a texting marathon on a Paris to London commute into a miniature thriller: is there iMessage in the great beyond? “Spiritualists were always very close to technological avant-garde,” says a specialist in the Af Klint video primer. At home, Maureen starts sketching doorways in black ink. Mobile and laptop screens are portals, too, as Assayas attests in demonlover. What good is an otherworldly intuition if it can’t get you somewhere?
A ghost and an iPhone; a silent French serial queen and a Hong Kong action star; Assayas knows that incongruity is the most banal—and therefore most vital—texture of contemporary life, felt in his films through a dramaturgy of minute modulations. We move between worlds more than through them. It seems like a decades-long echo of Debord, who saw everyday life as the site of potential uncovering; cinema, for Assayas “is not a system that explains or orders the world,” writes Genevieve Yue for Film Quarterly, but a way for “entering the world and exploring, even losing oneself in its dynamism, its perpetual lack of form, its openness.”2 It’s a kind of faith in the medium as home to instinct and lightness, guarded from the corporate anchors of industry, filled with plenty of space to roam.