The Brooklyn Academy of Music (or BAM, if you prefer its punchier moniker) have titled their Olivier Assayas retrospective "Post-Punk Auteur." The musical connotations of that label slightly undersell the filmmaker's eclecticism—he digs up scores of post-punk tracks, sure, but he also borrows from Malian musicians like Ali Farka Touré, ambient pioneer Brian Eno, and the Incredible String Band, to name just a few. Still, at least give BAM credit for nailing another aspect of Assayas's cinema.
This is a guy who directs his lens toward the margins of society, who chronicles the characters of counter-culture, if you will. Rebellious teens, recovering drug addicts, misunderstood authors/auteurs, and scantily clad femme-fatales, you have a friend in Olivier Assayas. Or at least a guy who cares about you—who looks at you not with scorn or pity but with empathy, a kind that never condescends no matter how down-and-out his subjects may seem. Couple this humanism with a dynamic, often frenetic style meant to capture lives in constant motion and you have the cinema's greatest punk-rock poet laureate of our time.
With BAM's retrospective underway, we take a look at Assayas's feature filmography, from the mid-'80s to recent films like last year's "Summer Hours" and this year's five hour epic "Carlos" (scheduled to show three nights in a row at 9 p.m. on the Sundance channel, and also opening at the IFC Center in New York in a truncated form this Friday). It's a varied canon, and even we have differing opinions about it. But our hope is that this will at least give you the incentive to go to some of these screenings yourself, if able. All of them are worth your time.
Note: ‘Post-Punk Auteur’ runs October 9—28 @ BAM Rose Cinemas. It features all twelve of the directors feature-length narrative films (covered here), in addition to three made-for-TV documentaries (1997’s “HHH: A Portrait of Hou Hsiao-hsien”; 2006’s “Noise”; and 2008’s “Creation”) and two films not directed by Assayas that he himself selected (Philippe Garrel’s 1993 “I Don’t Hear the Guitar Anymore” and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1995 “Good Men, Good Women”). You can find dates and times for these screenings here.
Some great filmmaker debuts carry a scrappy charm their subsequent work can't recapture. They may be flawed and uneven, but ultimately these films play an important role in their directors' oeuvres. "Disorder," apart from some very dated but endearing New Wave performances (including one from the Woodentops), is not one of those films. Thematic parallels can be drawn to Assayas's later work—youth's uneasy transition into adulthood, for one—but mostly this is a tedious melodrama that only feigns depth. (In other words, don't be surprised when "Disorder's" promising opening gives way to a long slog of moping faces.) In the midst of a dreary downpour, three teens break into a music shop and find themselves face to face with its armed owner; after a brief altercation, the clerk winds up dead and the kids run into the night, his blood on their hands. The teens turn out to be members of a rising post-punk band, and a murder on their conscience is the last thing they need. Assayas, always interested in digging into the psychology of his characters, is clearly interested in the emotional fallout. But he misses his mark here. The issue is that his characters are written so devil-may-care impulsive that it's not difficult to see their careers crashing just as badly had that one fateful night never occurred. Even the note of optimism the film closes with is vaguely unconvincing: Who's to say that love won't tear these depressed New Wavers apart, again? [C-]
"Winter's Child" (1989)
Assayas’s second film is probably his most elusive. It’s not available on DVD and, like his debut and each of his films up until 1997’s “Irma Vep,” it was not shown theatrically in the U.S. Which means we’ll be seeing it with the rest of you, at its one showing on October 17th, at 7:00pm. Here’s the synopsis from BAM’s press release: “The messy, intersecting lives of two young couples are depicted in this chillingly austere film. Stéphane leaves his pregnant girlfriend for Sabine, while Sabine struggles to free herself of her attachment to a seductive yet manipulative actor. Assayas’s formalist film explores themes of identity and isolation. With Clotilde de Bayser, Michel Feller, and Marie Matherson.”
Internet business corruption fuels the current number one movie in America with “The Social Network,” but it was done far better in Assayas’ slippery techno-thriller, where three women grapple with the hierarchy of a new merger to bring a prized product to the web: x-rated hentai. Connie Nielsen is steely and determined (and drop-dead gorgeous) in the lead, while Chloe Sevigny is dishy and duplicitous as the scheming assistant and Gina Gershon makes a strong impression as a fellow shark with eyes for corporate takeover. This is a world where execs discard coffee they suspect is poisoned without batting an eyelash, and the sense of paranoia adds to the unease when you realize this is essentially a twisty spy film. With its final images, Assayas uses wordless images to signify just how much global culture relies on the deadly mingling of sex and violence, while also probably forever taking himself out of the running to direct an "X-Men" picture. If you’ve seen it, you know what we’re talking about. [A-]
"Cold Water" (1994)
Assayas does a lot of things right in "Cold Water," his best film to date. But most cite first and foremost the filmmaker's flawless execution of this picture's extraordinary 20-plus minute centerpiece, a rave held by a group of teens deep in the woods, echoes of which can be seen throughout Assayas's work (most notably the house party in "Summer Hours"). As bodies dance in the dim light of a dilapidated farmhouse, Janis Joplin, Alice Cooper, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and others set the mood. In the midst of it all are disaffected youths Christine (Virginie Ledoyen) and Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet), lovers brought together through a shared feeling of displacement (neither’s parents want them around, and try to ship them off to a mental institution and boarding school, respectively). What makes this particular portrait of Youth in Revolt so special is that it never vilifies the adult characters. As Reverse Shot's Michael Koresky eloquently put it, "Cold Water" is a reflection of "true emerging awareness at this time of social distress." Assayas recognizes that the aimlessness of youth culture should not be blamed on the parents or their misbehaving children, but is the byproduct of a social crisis that forces the two from each other. When Gilles father announces he's sending his son to boarding school, he adds, "I'm never home, I can't watch you all the time." In this way, "Cold Water" signals a new-found maturity in Assayas's work, as his protagonists grow older and his characterizations sharper in the coming years. [A-]
"Irma Vep" (1997)
Greater writers have tried (and failed) to capture this film’s indescribable magnetism. It's ostensibly about the ‘disorder’ of today’s French arthouse, conducted like a Robert Altman mosaic, with characters flitting between rooms and the camera nimbly tracking them. It's also a movie that considers the value of an art cinema rejected by general audiences (linking it to Assayas's next film, "Late August, Early September") in sometimes didactic ways. It's both intensely cerebral (lots of self-conscious, rambling dialogues, which may be the point), and totally improvisational, as evidenced in its out-of-leftfield finale. "Irma Vep" is a lot of other things, too, including a film-within-a-film, following a petulant auteur (Jean-Pierre Léaud, filling the role of a fictitious Nouvelle Vague stalwart) determined to capture the "quietude" of Louis Feuillade's silent serial "Les vampires." The director (in the film) casts Hong Kong star Maggie Cheung (who plays herself), admiring the "grace" she displays in martial arts movies. Cheung arrives to find a frantic crew, few of whom speak English, and is promptly whisked to a sex shop and fitted for the black latex suit she'll be wearing as the title character (an anagram for "vampire," by the way). This movie is unpredictable—there's at least one scene that we're pretty sure is a dream sequence, involving an almost Lynchian naked cameo from Arsinée Khanjian (who greatly resembles Isabella Rossellini)—but the randomness is thrilling, the substance is the style, and the meaning… well, that's in there too, somewhere. [B+]
"Late August, Early September" (1998)
This film and Assayas's later "Summer Hours" go together like two shoes. In the latter, the passing of a family matriarch forces her children to appraise the estate she leaves behind. Here, the passing of an idiosyncratic author causes his friends to contemplate their lives and their complicated relationships. Both double as meditations on the value of art; in the later film, it is painting and sculpture that is assessed, monetary value weighed against sentimental, while here it's the worth of great literature that can't connect with an audience. Give Assayas credit for being open about not having the answers: a conversation central to the film finds author Adrien (François Cluzet), reacting to his fledgling health, discussing candidly his failure to make sustainable income from publishing his books, while best friend Gabriel (Mathieu Amalric), argues that it's his legacy as a great writer that should be more important. Assayas takes neither side, and a later scene — during which young interns sing the praises of Adrien's posthumous novel, admitting they haven't read his other work — only frustrates Gabriel, who insists, "His best books were ahead of him." If 'Late August' doesn't pack the emotional wallop of "Summer Hours" (nor Arnaud Desplechin's relationship drama "My Sex Life…," also featuring Amalric), it's elevated by a stellar cast of French thespians (in addition to Amalric and Cluzet, Jeanne Balibar, Alex Descas, Mia Hansen-Løve, and "Cold Water’s" Virginie Ledoyen), and by an acute understanding of the way we interact as lovers and as friends. [B+]
Superficially, “Clean” is a movie we’ve seen before, the struggles of a rock star junkie and her desire to stay clean and provide for her son. But of course that would be neglecting the challenges Assayas responded to, showcasing a story with a touching focus on humanity, a meditation on forgiveness that is never neat and tidy, but instead filled with disruptions and tragedy. Maggie Cheung, a former Assayas paramour, delivers a performance of noted difficulty, attempting to find the strength from within and learning to trust herself when the world has given up (she won Cannes' Best Actress prize in 2004). But a growly, unkempt Nick Nolte is a highlight as the compassionate father-in-law determined to help this fractured, unhappy woman find strength. Deceptively straight-forward, “Clean” is a movie about complex emotions and acute heartbreak that feels real every single minute. [A]
"Les destinées" (2002): "The world needs children. We need a man here." These are the words of aging French industrialist Jean Barnery (Charles Berling), voicing doubts about leaving his empire to his only son. They're also the words of Olivier Assayas, even if he didn't write them; "Les destinées" is based on a novel by Jacques Chardonne. They express complicated feelings about the vitalness of youth and necessity of adulthood, themes that have defined Assayas's work for at least a decade. Here, they're refracted in a three-hour epic, a time capsule of the early 1900s, following Jean through 30 years of his life, from his time as a minister in Barbazac, wed to the frigid Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert), to his pained divorce and new love with Pauline (Emmanuelle Béart), first in picaresque Switzerland and later back in Barbazac, where he's called upon to take over his family's porcelain business. As is the case with most three-hour epics, this one has its padding; the story concerns not just Jean and Pauline's life together, but also Nathalie's with Aline (Mia Hansen Løve), the daughter Jean left behind in his divorce. But "Les destinées" finds dramatic footing in its story's central relationship, or more specifically, the heartbreaking performances of Berling and Béart. It's hard to think of another couple who have aged so gracefully onscreen — aesthetically and emotionally — and this gives the film's final moments an unexpected poignancy. To put it simply, the ends justify the very long time it takes to get there. [B-]
"Boarding Gate" (2008)
This is Assayas's most divisive movie to date, and this writer is a big fan. Maybe it’s Asia Argento’s sexy, no-nonsense intensity; she plays a vulnerable femme fatale tangled in a web of masculine deceit. Maybe it’s Assayas's careful pacing; he blends quiet human intimacy with abrasive sequences of abrupt violence and erotic incident. The result, in any case, is hypnotic, as mean as it is beautiful and haunting—especially true of "Boarding Gate's" final shot, which might make the greatest use of an escalator in the history of cinema. (And certainly the least cheesy use of Sparks's extended "Number One Song in Heaven" mix.) The film immediately establishes itself as a descendant of "demonlover," but better; it uses the B-thriller template and subverts it, skewing understated and contemplative, reserving choice moments for bursts of sensationalism. Navigating through the urban sprawls of Paris, then Beijing, escaping one bad romance for another, Argento gives a performance to remember. But don’t forget about Michael Madsen, who plays her jilted lover. Both feature in "Boarding Gate's" longest sequence, a ballsy apartment-set duel wherein the not-so-happy couple fight, throw things, make-out, taunt each other, and eventually... well, we won't spoil it. The scene runs about 30 minutes and is reminiscent of the lengthy domestic feud of Godard’s “Contempt.” It’s the kind of scene where, in the theater, you can audibly hear jaws drop, which pretty accurately describes our reaction to the other eighty minutes or so as well. [A-]
"Summer Hours" (2009): This film at once belongs to a sub-genre defined by the loose concept of 'generational transference.' These films revolve around tensions between the older and younger generations; recent examples include Kiyoshi Kurosawa's “Tokyo Sonata” and Claire Denis's "35 Shots of Rum," each attuned to the cinema of Yasujiro Ozu, who saw the stubbornness of familial bonds as a push-and-pull divided along generational lines. "Summer Hours" is a contemplation of material transference — in the form of the The Monetary vs. The Sentimental value of art. Assayas begins with an elegy: the passing of a wealthy matriarch (Edith Scob), who leaves behind a family estate and three adult children (Charles Berling, Jeremie Renier and Juliette Binoche) with different ideas of what to do with it. Assayas's style has been known to veer into the manic (see: "Boarding Gate"), but here, true to his Ozu-meets-Renoir story, he lets his film float along at an unhurried pace, developing his Chekhovian family drama with welcome civility. A conflict does develop between the siblings — divided by opinions of their estate’s "worth" — but Assayas gracefully balances discord with empathy. Finally, “Summer Hours” reaches a moment of pure transcendence: a vibrant house party filled with young people, during which the late matriarch’s granddaughter arrives at a sudden and meaningful reflection. Assayas suggests that our possessions and property inevitably change hands as sure as we all leave this earth, but with a new season of life comes the cleansing possibility of a new youthful generation. [A-]
"Paris S'éveille" (1991)
“You have to be head-over-heels in love to live in a dump like this” shouts the manic-pixie-dream-girl of Assayas’s “Paris s’éveille,” a decisive line that resonates throughout not just this picture, but nearly every one the director has made. Here it relates to a young woman coping with the Parisian fortress of graffiti-ed concrete she and her rebellious boyfriend (Thomas Langmann) have made their makeshift home. But it could just as easily refer to Maggie Cheung’s on-again/off-again drug addicted mother from 2006's “Clean” (a spiritual heir to the on-again/off-again 18 year-old drug addict of this film). Played luminously by a young Judith Godréche, “Paris s’éveille’s” Louise, an aspiring model with a penchant for men who treat her poorly and a head of boyishly short hair, is just as identifiable as an heir to Patricia Franchini, Jean Seberg’s character from Jean Luc-Godard’s seminal “Breathless.” Furthering the French New Wave connection, “Paris s’éveille” also stars Jean-Pierre Léaud, and his presence acts both as an affirmation of Assayas’s devotion to the ‘60s French cinema and, as his dour-faced role of stern adult oppressor may reflect, the filmmaker’s youthful desire to move past his influences. A tad sentimental in its last act, capped by a seemingly unrelated digression of a final scene (not unlike the sequence which ends Wong Kar-wai’s “Days of Being Wild,” another point of reference and released the same year), this is still one of Assayas’s early triumphs. And one of his most satisfying doses of Pure Cinema. [B]
After the small-scale family drama (and all-round masterpiece) "Summer Hours," Assayas decided to explode (literally), with a five-and-a-half hour long exploration of the terrorist Carlos the Jackal (played by the criminally underrated—until now?—Edgar Ramirez). In a way the epic, globe-trotting biography, centering mainly on the French-connected campaigns, is a synthesis of his previous cluster of films, which focused on international intrigue in an increasingly globalized world, with the more personal filmmaking on display in "Summer Hours." Who else, for instance, would devote much of the movie's final piece to Carlos's battle with an inflamed testicle? Although it's anchored by an incredibly strong performance by Ramirez, who goes through a whole series of physical transformations as Carlos gains and loses weight constantly, this is Assayas' show through-and-through. It's a movie about shifting alliances and the place of France in a worldwide conflict of ideals, and as a filmmaker he has never been stronger: for a movie this long, it practically breezes by, pinballing along with Carlos's ever-shifting allegiances. For a movie with so much on its mind, it's wildly entertaining, to an almost criminal degree. [A] — Sam C. Mac with contributions by Gabe Toro and Drew Taylor.