19 October, 2010

Olivier Assayas: Post-Punk Auteur

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

In CARLOS, the riveting and expansive 5 1/2-hour biopic of the charismatic 1970s terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, writer/director Olivier Assayas relies on a dizzying cinematic style that is also punctuated by the punk music that characterized the rebellion of the age in which he lived. Music and visuals are among the many pallettes that Assayas has used with great fidelity and skill throughout his diverse and diverting 25-year career. As an added panache to the theatrical release of CARLOS in the United States by IFC Films (surely one of the highlights of the Fall film season), the BAMcinematek in Brooklyn is presenting an exhaustive retrospective of the director's oeuvre. The series, which began last weekend and will also screen the CARLOS marathon biopic, is presenting 19 films in all, including his early short films, a number of rarely-seen documentaries and his full feature film oeuvre. Ranging from anarchic rebellion to pastoral family pieces to intense thrillers, the director's range and interests are truly wide-reaching.

Like his "nouvelle vague" predecessors a generation before, Assayas came to directing first immersing himself in the world of film criticism. Like Godard, Truffaut and Malle, he maintains both the detached eye of the outside critic, while remaining loyal to his vision, but forever finding a correlation to the visual voices of his heros. In Assayas' case, there was indeed a cinematic gene.....his father Jacques Remy was a screenwriter who penned original works and adaptations for the big and small screen, in collaboration with such French giants as Rene Clair, Marcel Camus, Roger Vadim and Rene Clement. It is even rumored that the young Assayas was the ghost writer of several scripts when his faher's health began to fail.

As a film critic at the prestigious Cahiers du Cinema, Assayas wrote extensively about the underrated auteurs of both French and world cinema, while also championing Asian filmmaking, in particularly the works of his primary artistic influence, the Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien. By 1986, he was ready to helm his first original script, the music-set DISORDER, about a group of young punk musicians who break the rules in order to do the one thing that they find transcendent....making music. The film won a Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival and Assayas was instantly hailed as a new kind of French filmmaker.

As stated, music has played a big role in his films, as both subject and subtext. In PARIS AT DAWN (1991), a moody triangle develops between a drug addict and her older lover and his son. The film, shot in delectable black and white that gives Paris the atmospheric glamour usually associated with film noir New York, boasts an original score by the Velvet Underground's John Cale. In the underrated LATE AUGUST, EARLY SEPTEMBER (1998), Assayas uses the melodious music of Malian musician Ali Farka Toure to provide the rhythm of the back-and-forth connections between a disparate group of thirty-somethings. In the controversial demonlover (2002), the terrific score by Sonic Youth contributed to the film's wildly hallucinatory atmosphere and underlying erotic tension. The unstable world of musicians also informs CLEAN, with Assayas' one-time wife Maggie Cheung winning accolades for her performance as a recovering addict who was a casaulty of a high-powered and unforgiving music world.

However, striking visuals are also a hallmark of Assayas' best work. In IRMA VEP (1996), his international breakout hit, the imagery is almost hallucinatory as Assayas brings us behind the scenes of the filmmaking process as a director (played by the iconic Jean-Pierre Leaud) attempts a remake of the subversive silent classic LES VAMPIRES by Louis Feuillade. The frug-fueled mania of Paris night life is brought to colorful life in the earlier COLD WATER (1994), climaxing in an extensive party scene with hot passion, illicit drugs, music and dancing before a raging bonfire. Drugs also fuel the erotic tension in BOARDING GATE (2007), a steamy look at hedonism starring Michael Madsen and Asia Argento.

While these "all charged up" visuals necessitate a hot temperament and a roving camera, Assayas has also demonstrated his powerful control of understated emotion in such films as LES DESTINEES (2000), a multi-era period piece starring a stellar cast that included Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Beart and Charles Berling. A similar sure hand gave a special resonance to the unstated in SUMMER HOURS (2008), an almost Japanese-look at the effect of a parent's death on the surviving children....while also making a trenchant statement about what can be characterized as the cynical and unsentimental "new France", a country adrift in the waves of globalization.

While that subject is considered one for our own age, it clearly has been the case for several decades, as is demonstrated with great alacrity in CARLOS. The film moves between Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans with dizzying speed, often including three different languages in the same scene. As an international terrorist who found alliances with (at different times) the Russians, the Syrians, the German Stasi, the Libyans and terrorist cells in France, Germany and Spain, Carlos was, in his way, a true citizen of the world. However misguided his messianic politics and violent nature, he understood that the world was more interconnected than most people in his age realized. In the end, when he is abandoned by all his former allies, he represents the ultimate isolation and lack of connection that is inherent in many of Assayas' films. As is illustrated, we come into this world alone and leave it just as lonely......but oh, the musical, magical, visual ride.

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