In 1992, I went to Paris to see some movies that weren’t turning up on these shores, at least not as quickly as I wanted them to. At the time, it meant something particular to be going to Paris to see movies. Paris meant “cinema” and all that the term implied, as distinct from movies or film. To a certain extent, it still does. And cinema meant a response to the world, as opposed to a distraction from it, an engagement with the present and the past, historical and aesthetic—in essence, a dismantling of the barrier between the two.
At that point, cinema was still all but synonymous with the French New Wave, despite the fact that the New Wave was no longer new, and that one of its guiding lights, François Truffaut, had been dead for eight years. For many American film lovers, the wave was still cresting.
I saw as many films as I could, by André Téchiné, Leos Carax, Maurice Pialat, Eric Rohmer, and then something by a relatively young director who, like Rohmer and Téchiné (and, ever so briefly, Carax), had written for Cahiers du cinéma. His name was Olivier Assayas, and the film was called Paris s’éveille. My comprehension of spoken French was, and is, rangy (it all depends on who’s doing the speaking), and there was a lot that I missed in this sad love triangle between a lost girl (Judith Godrèche), her much older boyfriend (Jean-Pierre Léaud), and his son (Thomas Langmann, the offspring of legendary producer-director Claude Berri). However, there was something about Paris s’éveille that instantly separated it from the other films—a realism about how much or how little younger people value themselves, a frank acknowledgment of everyday cruelty, a powerful bond with the actors and a close, vivid sense of their individual physical expressivity, and a sense of speed that was distinctly different from anything I’d seen by anyone else. Not the speed, or the pace, of the film itself, but the speed of life in the film as it was experienced by the characters. With a somber visual palette, Assayas was rendering the blur of existence, the sensation of an individual consciousness trying to catch up with time, of impulse-governed action followed much later by sober reflection. This was something new.
Not long after, Assayas made another film, called Une nouvelle vie, a more extreme and haunting work than Paris s’éveille in which the same ideas of character and experiential flux were carried even further. I raved about these movies to my friend Alex Horwath, who then ran the Viennale (and is now the director of the Austrian Film Museum). He knew Assayas and suggested that I write to him, and when I did, he responded almost immediately. “I was losing hope that my films would ever be understood on the other side of the Atlantic,” he wrote. We began a correspondence, and then we got to know each other. I was half a decade younger, but we seemed to share a generational DNA. This became abundantly clear when I saw Cold Water a year later. This autobiographical film, shot on Super 16 mm, was the highlight of the television series Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge (“All the Boys and Girls of Their Age,” the title taken from a once-famous Françoise Hardy song). Eight filmmakers, including Claire Denis, Chantal Akerman, and Téchiné, were given small budgets to create portraits of themselves at the age of sixteen, and the one rule was that they had to include a party scene. Cold Water, set in the deepest and dankest seventies, featured the greatest one in the series. This lengthy, climactic set piece took place outside an abandoned château, and I still know of nothing else quite like it in movies: the camera is never less than excitingly mobile, but thanks to the visual scheme worked out between Assayas and his DP, Denis Lenoir, every wandering pack of adolescents, every cloud of hash smoke, every form that passes before the camera, maintains an impressive solidity. And as powerful as this somber conflagration is, I’ve always found the scene that precedes it even more remarkable. The teenage boy who plays Assayas’s surrogate, Cyprien Fouquet, walks his bicycle alone through the woods, lights up a Gauloise, opens a Ginsberg collection, and starts reading “Wichita Vortex Sutra” aloud in halting English. The winding path through the woods, tracked by the camera from a series of scintillating distances, the heartbreakingly cracked voice, the adolescent investment of faith in poetry and music, the comfort of unexposed solitude, conspire to make for a passage so acutely realized as to merit the adjective visionary. It is perfectly capped by Fouquet’s arriving at the main road, mounting his bicycle, and riding into the fog, as he continues his awkward recitation.
Gavin Smith, then the assistant editor of Film Comment, agreed to let me write my first piece for the magazine on Assayas, who sent me cassettes of his earlier films. And as I got to know Olivier better personally, a fuller picture emerged. Despite his tenure at Cahiers (where he was pegged as a genre specialist, and where he was among the first Western critics to write about Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang, two filmmakers with whom he came to feel a special kinship), he took a route to moviemaking that was less devotional than artisanal. His father, Jacques Rémy, was an Italian-born screenwriter who worked on many films throughout the fifties and sixties with Henri Decoin, Claude Autant-Lara, René Clément, Jean Delannoy, and other filmmakers excoriated by the critics who later made up the New Wave. Unlike many French filmmakers before and since, Olivier did not receive his movie education at the Cinémathèque française, and had a keener interest in Guy Debord and punk rock as a teenager than he did in Renoir or Hitchcock. After he abandoned painting, he served an apprenticeship on two Alexander and Ilya Salkind productions, Crossed Swords and Superman. He and his brother Michka were enlisted by their ailing father to ghostwrite an assortment of episodes for the popular TV series Maigret, and after making a couple of shorts (including the amusing Laissé inachevé à Tokyo, with László Szabó and Arielle Dombasle), Olivier got his first break as a screenwriter from Téchiné, with Rendez-vous and Scene of the Crime, paving the way for his feature directorial debut in 1986. Désordre, about a close-knit group of young people whose ties slowly unravel in the wake of an accidental killing, is an unusual debut, a finely wrought study of youth imploding rather than exploding under pressure. It immediately placed Olivier in an orbit of his own. Désordre was more attentive to narrative structure and character than the work of any other French filmmaker of Olivier’s age group, but it was also fully cathected with the disenchantments and terrors of the younger generation it depicted. Like L’enfant de l’hiver, its follow-up, Désordre is a uniformly sad experience. The principal people in both (rock musicians in the first film, slightly older artists and intellectuals in the second) appear to be caught in a blue-tinged, atmospheric depression, and yet there is a countervailing current of electric vitality running through both movies that endows them with a considerable dramatic power.
In 1990, Olivier conducted three lengthy interviews with one of the filmmakers he had always admired most, Ingmar Bergman, which later became a book called Conversations avec Bergman. There’s a nice moment where Olivier remarks on the somber character of Bergman’s early film Prison and wonders if this reflected the older filmmaker’s point of view at the time. “My dear friend . . . Olivier . . . couldn’t one say the same of your film L’enfant de l’hiver?” answers Bergman. “When you’re young, you’re pessimistic. You enjoy it . . . It’s even more than that: ‘le plaisir du pessimisme.’” A bit later, Bergman counsels the young artist to guard against eliciting easy tears from his audience, then compliments him on his considerable talent for creating passages that seem to be happening as if in a dream. These are acute observations. I think that as time has passed, the pessimism has slowly fanned out to an ever sharper and increasingly attentive scrutiny of the strange sensation of living in the changing present, while the oneiric rendering of action has developed into a remarkably refined and economical sense of storytelling through ceaseless motion—the motion of the world, of characters in the world, of the camera as it tracks the interaction of the two. Olivier’s close attention to contemporary states of being has been manifested in two alternating stylistic registers: character-oriented films like Late August, Early September; Les destinées sentimentales; and Clean on the one hand, and Debordian action movies like Irma Vep, demonlover, and Boarding Gate on the other. It’s obvious that these two tendencies—refinement and intimacy versus sensory downpour and superreal heightening—reflect the satisfaction of dueling urges. But as with all such distinctions in an artist’s career, things are not quite so cut-and-dried.
The quick, lithe, giddily terrifying Irma Vep, for example, is exactly what it was intended to be: a snapshot of colliding artistic, commercial, and political energies circa 1996. Yet for all its dexterous speed and invention (realized with the help of a great cameraman, Eric Gautier, who has shot many of the films Olivier has made since), it is anchored by the touching infatuation of Zoé, the costume designer played by Nathalie Richard, with Maggie Cheung. Conversely, Les destinées sentimentales may have the trappings of a stately period piece, but it is ultimately as harrowing as the warp-speed, Sonic Youth–scored demonlover. The moment in Late August, Early September when Mathieu Amalric realizes that his prematurely deceased friend is no longer a writer of promise but has become a revered figure overnight is as head-spinning as the transcontinental double crosses of Boarding Gate, while the protracted exchanges between Michael Madsen and Asia Argento in that film are just as intimate and raw as the sudden intrusion of mortality in the former. And in the case of both tendencies, Olivier’s gift for elliptical storytelling is central. It is central on the level of narrative structure and on the more atomized, moment by moment level of an editing rhythm determined by gestures that appear to be happened-upon, then quickly isolated and comprehended as unrepeatable events in time, in addition to being a series of steps in a carefully calibrated narrative. This unique aspect of Olivier’s craft reaches a peak in Clean, about a former addict named Emily (Cheung—the film was made after their brief marriage had ended) trying to start a new life and reclaim her son from her in-laws. The delicate loneliness of Emily’s son, Jay (James Dennis), is initially imparted to us through a magical sequence, scored with Brian Eno’s plaintive “Taking Tiger Mountain,” in which the camera patiently follows the boy as he leaves a London hotel room and walks outside by himself to buy a new comic book. We arrive at this carefully attended moment, a little poem of boyishly awkward resolve and defiance, without knowing precisely where we are or how much time has passed since the preceding scene. The sense of ongoing reality becomes fragile, almost diaphanous, and Jay’s experience of the complicated adult situation around him, part of which he understands and part of which he doesn’t, is made that much more poignant.
Like Late August, Early September, Summer Hours (an impressionistic translation of the original French title, L’heure d’été) takes place within the universe of the French middle class, where the action is conducted in living rooms and across bistro tabletops. The story may be set in Paris and the French countryside, but the characters live at far-flung emotional and geographic distances from one another. Charles Berling’s Frédéric, the most dutiful of three adult siblings in a family with a high artistic pedigree, is the only one who lives on French soil. His prickly sister, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), works as a designer for a Japanese department store in Manhattan, and his brother, Jérémie (Jérémie Rénier), has seized an economic opportunity by relocating himself and his family to Beijing. Which means that the family gatherings composing the bulk of the action are extraordinary events in the everyday lives of those who attend them. The venerable family house, inhabited by the delicately worried, aging matriarch Hélène (Edith Scob), and the fragility and ultimate impermanence of family ties act as opposing, yet oddly complimentary, forces in this deeply personal and quietly devastating film, which I doubt Olivier could have made before his own mother’s passing in 2007.
We learn of Hélène’s death not with a sudden collapse or an emergency phone call but with a transition from her sitting alone to Frédéric rushing from one task to another, before arriving at the office of a cemetery director to discuss the details of his mother’s burial. As is the case for all of us, the flow of life never halts, something that is understood on every level of this film: in the sense of weather and times of day; in the close attention paid to generational differences of perspective (and, through the beautifully drawn character of Isabelle Sadoyan’s Éloise, the old family housekeeper, differences of class); in the frank acknowledgment of economic verities; in the arc of the narrative, where a family house is sold off and the treasured objects within it become pieces on display in the Musée d’Orsay (like Irma Vep, Summer Hours was expanded from an aborted omnibus project, this one composed of short films by various filmmakers set in the museum; the other films bearing traces of this project are Hou’s Flight of the Red Balloon and Hong Sang-soo’s Night and Day); and in the touchy, loaded interactions between the siblings and their spouses.
For me, the most remarkable scene in the film is the family gathering where it is decided that the house will be sold. The orchestration of movement and emotional crosscurrents is every bit as impressive as in Irma Vep’s tour de force party gathering, but the perceptions are even keener. Frédéric begins the conversation by assuming that the house will stay in the family, and slowly, unassumingly, without any overt disagreement, Jérémie and Adrienne steer things in the other direction. No one actually states their point of view until they have to. Fear of conflict is a central fact of life for most people, and I don’t know of another film that captures it as well. What makes this scene even more remarkable is the importance of Lisa (Dominique Reymond) and Angela (Valérie Bonneton), the wives of Frédéric and Jérémie and the two characters who say the least, as they encourage or offer solidarity with their husbands through glances, shifts in posture, movements toward or away from the area of conflict. Another key moment comes when Adrienne announces that she’s planning to marry her boyfriend in New York, prompting a round of kidding from her siblings about her disastrous first marriage. What is so poignantly true here is the relief that comes with the break in tension, the willingness of all parties to obliterate, for one final moment, the cold realities of the situation.
Olivier’s position in relation to his characters is stoically removed yet lovingly attentive to their vanities, idiosyncrasies, and reserves of goodwill, as he takes them through the family discussions and then the legal verifications, assessments, and presentations by which the paintings and furniture in Hélène’s house become artworks on display in the museum. There’s a vital scene early in the film in which the birdlike Hélène patiently explains to a childishly disbelieving Frédéric that she’s going to die sooner rather than later. It’s difficult to think of many other movies that have been as frank about the excruciating conflict between maintaining the memory of the past and making way for the future. The house is sold, as Hélène knew it would be; the events that occurred within its walls are consigned to legend or forgotten altogether; the objects are either handed down, thrown away (including, most movingly of all, a brand-new telephone), sold, or turned over to posterity; and the passing of time provokes anxiety and regret, which finally give way to a measure of peace.
As I write this, Olivier Assayas has just finished a remarkable three-part film about the terrorist Carlos—another shift in mood, another side of contemporary history. He is also glorying in the recent birth of his first child. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, his films continue to surprise me, stir me, and help to refine my vision of the ever-expanding world. I know I’m not alone.