Plenty of boors will still be grousing over the pace of today’s movies and “MTV aesthetics” when the sun supernovas. But who’d really presume to talk about the way we live now with a 50-year-old vocabulary? Enter Olivier Assayas, from the land of l’Académie française, allergic to the clichéd frame and naturally acclimated to fin-de-millennium velocity, treating these times as the opportunity to make films with a new capacity for emotion and ideas.
The eight-film retro at Anthology Film Archives showcases a virtuosity so unaffected it frequently goes unnoticed, not to say unsung. Assayas favors stick-and-move moviemaking, with cinematographer-
collaborators Eric Gautier or Denis Lenoir picking out evanescent moments from complex sequence shots, cutting through warrens of activity that would trip up a bulkier crew. The paradigm is the controlled anarchy of the all-night rager in Assayas’s fourth film, 1994’s Cold Water, the director’s recollection of being young and bored in the early ’70s, as detail-right as resin crumbs stuck on a Uriah Heep gatefold. The party’s coda comes at dawn, as girls squat to pee in a damp field and Nico’s donjon-drear voice echoes through the soundtrack—I’ve been a convert ever since.
Assayas started off in the practice of thinking hard about movies; he wrote for Cahiers du Cinema in the early ’80s, where he was an advocate of new Asian cinema—
HHH, his 1997 profile of Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, is included in Anthology’s lineup. Toward the end of his Cahiers tenure, he was working as a screenwriter, for André Téchiné among others (their latter-day reunion feature, ’98’s Alice et Martin, also screens). As a filmmaker,
he’s been acutely aware of his My Generation duties; he’s talking about himself when discussing the dilemma of writer Jacques Chardonne and his between-wars contemporaries, “forcing themselves to adapt the novel, with its narration and figuration, to thought processes remodeled by the 20th century.”
Theory gets practice in 1996’s globalization-cosmopolitan Irma Vep, a film about its own making, for which Assayas imported Hong Kong starlet Maggie Cheung to play herself as the imported starlet of a remake of Les Vampires, directed by an eccentric auteur in the personage of Jean-Pierre Leaud. The film’s contemplation of celebrity-as-commodity belies the continuing project of Assayas’s work. Each of his movies is a network of specific human relationships, but also a study in individuals as they relate to the marketplace in the era of capitalism triumphant; he elides a lot of hackneyed high drama, but Assayas always stops to count the change. This attention to the market doesn’t take the form of revolutionary grandstanding—a socialist student film of the ’60s is a mere phantom presence in Irma—but rather pragmatic inquiry into the economic life of the First World, and the delicate art of staying human in it. Les Destinées Sentimentales (2000), Assayas’s adaptation of a Chardonne novel, chronicles the scions of two turn-of-the-last-century bourgeois merchant families as they navigate changes in trade practice, their genteel world impinged by mass production, fading borders, and labor unrest. I suspect Assayas was drawn to the material’s insight into how we got where we are today, but the film handles history with easy fluency, encompassing 30-odd years of pre-WWII France in a universe of details.
All business, 2002’s demonlover is a cautionary tale of competing corporations, fighting dirty to win the rights to distribute CG manga porno-violence. Shot in Paris and Japan, with a cast of bilingual, bisexual BCBG femmes prowling lozenge-smooth interiors—corporate parks, airport concourses, extended-stay hotels—it’s by default the best movie directly about
the Internet age (the competition being limited to Hollywood’s talked-down mishmashes of IT jargon and puerile “Don’t go in your in-box!” J-horror). I’ve never learned to like the movie (you’re not supposed to), and the “chilling” conclusion compares unfavorably to Brainscan, but I’ll keep revisiting demonlover while waiting for somebody to follow up on its challenge. . . . Is anybody there? Is Assayas his own lone contemporary?
Follow-up Clean is warm-blooded, again; the product is pop music, reissued postmortem; the grounds, Canada, London, Paris, Frisco (and a Chinese restaurant). Cheung returns as the scag-hag widow of an OD’d rock ‘n’ roll wash-up who has to gather herself into a cogent human—that is, rescue herself from obsolescence—to negotiate her son back from the in-laws (dilapidated Nick Nolte, performing at a touching creak). The execution is suitably sober, with Eno synths spread over the soundtrack like a warm poultice. “I let the audience feel and think,” Fassbinder said 30 years ago. This was his simple premise for movies of the future, and Assayas is in rare company trying to keep it.