Post-Punk Auteur: The Films Of Olivier Assayas

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by The Playlist
October 18, 2010 8:40 AM
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"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]

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