Olivier Assayas and the New Tower of Babel

Note: I wrote this for a mandatory Writing the Essay class this semester in my first year as part of the NYU Cinema Studies program, and didn’t plan on publishing it anywhere, but then I started this new site (good riddance, old site!), needed to make a first blog post, and hated the default blog post that WordPress forces on you enough to embarass myself like this. It’s about one of my favorite directors (whose work I’ve needed to take a break from since researching and writing this essay), and how his films capture the overarching loneliness of globalization and incorporate global economics and all that.

Olivier Assayas’ most powerful image is that of a woman alone. Whether it be Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep, lost in France and abandoned by all of the crew despite being the star of the production or Juliette Binoche in Clouds of Sils Maria, abandoned on the top of a mountain mid-conversation. Or of almost each scene following Connie Nielsen in demonlover, as she infiltrates two different online porn companies. If anything, his characters, living in this modern era with all of the benefits of technology at their service should be more connected to the world around them. Instead, their foreign surroundings consume them, nullifying their national identities in the process. And so some are surrounded by others and still alone: Asia Argento in Boarding Gate, exiled to Hong Kong and swept up by throngs of other people speaking different languages, or Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper, an American floating through France, more connected with a nonexistent spiritual world than the real one. Yet, these moments exist in such cynical films — why do they hurt as they do?

When his characters find each other, they become animals. Of dialogue, or the lack thereof in Boarding Gate, critic Gina Telaroli pinpoints: “Characters confront each other not with carefully crafted words but with a bare minimum of language — their interactions are primarily physical” (Jones 171).

To contrast, and supplement the stark loneliness of his solitary women, Assayas’ most powerful sequences of images act on more visceral terms, yet are arguably just as emotional. Sex, always beginning with partners dressed in business casual, discussing terms that sound professional but amount to nothing, also always ends in a bang — a gunshot, or head wounds at the least. He maps the body like it were geography, engaging with it again and again until it is no longer flesh, which “seems to be on its way out, victim to an emerging market in which everything is commodified” (Koresky). It happens multiple times in demonlover — most significantly when Charles Berling’s Herve, who up until that point in the film had appeared to be nothing but a horny executive to be duped, reveals the strings dangling from Nielsen’s Diane, whose control as it turn out — over the situation… all situations —  was only imaginary. Suddenly, her stony demeanor is shed and she finally gives in to his advances in a luxurious hotel room that has surely amassed plenty of stars. The sex is a microcosm of their relationship, and starts slowly and consensually before becoming violent and degrading. There’s no way out, until she finds a gun, and shoots him in the head, spilling brain and chunks of skull all over her. A similar scene also acts as the inciting incident in Boarding Gate, in which Argento’s Sandra gets a sort of revenge over her former employer, Michael Madsen’s Miles, who had used her as a prostitute-spy, before quickly discarding her. What starts as drinks slowly becomes S&M, and the clothes start to come off. Both characters alternate as the dominant and the submissive and corporate power dynamics are charted. She goes into the other room and returns with a pistol, firing four shots into Madsen.

boarding gate

Both women are originally treated as material goods — owned by others who move them like pawn pieces. And yet, both women, after effectively returning the power back to themselves, become distraught, almost as if they were unaware of the effects of a bullet to the temple. The commodification of the body begets a brief flash of regained control. For a brief moment, humanity is restored to the flesh and the loss of life is felt, before their now-dead masters are quickly and efficiently replaced by new masters — just another cog in the machine. With Herve dead, Diane enjoys a brief lapse of liberation, before another seemingly minor character — Chloe Sevigny’s meek Elise — emerges as the new figurehead. With Miles dead, Sandra is only allowed a brief moment of freedom before Carl Ng’s Lester, who supplied her with the means of her revenge and emancipation, calls in his favor. Eventually it is revealed that both of these new masters are at the mercy of others. It is as if nothing happened: “Everything is immaculate: even blood pooling on the floor after a murder, even the toilets in which the protagonist pukes after witnessing (or actively participating in) such violence” (Shaviro).

It makes sense that Assayas’ favorite settings are transportation hubs — airports, train stations — that shrink the world and make national citizens global — stripping yet another facet of individualized identity. Or that “the majority of the cast speaks English as a second language,” and because of that, are forced to rely on their pure physicality (Jones 171). See Argento’s or Madsen’s careers as physical actors who let their bodies do the emoting, or the weight gained by Berling to embody his bear-of-a-character, or even the tight black leather bodysuits that Nielsen wears in demonlover, or Cheung wears in Irma Vep, which emphasize the form but restrict the wearer, bearing a creepy resemblance to that of a gimp suit. The body is no longer human, and becomes a conduit just like the planes and trains and taxis. The body acts as a “potential medium of exchange, a mode of payment for something else” (Shaviro).

irma vep.jpg

It is interesting to note the strain caused by the simultaneous commodification and regression of the body. Economist Yann Moulier Boutang’s describes Cognitive Capitalism, and how “the source of wealth is no longer labor-power,” but rather “the “intellectual capital” that is possessed less by individuals than by networks of individuals” (Shaviro). Command over the body is extended to command over the brain; free thought is almost sacrificed for groupthink, and only through a return to basest instinct — a retreatment to animalistic urges deemed taboo by civilization — is one able to reclaim their individuality.

If flesh is no longer flesh, one has to adopt a healthy substitute. Critic Michael Koresky acknowledges the subtle body-horror occurring parallel to materiality in his aptly titled essay “The New Flesh”. He compares the “tight tee-shirts” that Gina Gershon’s character Elaine wears to “ironic billboards” — the body is relegated to cheap advertisement; of an early scene in the film, in which Diane commits her first act of corporate espionage in drugging her company rival, he notices: “Diane pinpricks a drugged syringe into the foil cover of her competitor Karen’s single-serve Evian cup as if it were flesh” — the body is material, the body is replaceable.

Such a tension imbues the images of outright loneliness with so much pain:

Interconnectivity is vital and a part of life in the 21st century, and loneliness should thereby be impossible.

But people are no longer really people, and everyone has already sold themselves to a greater system.

These images of the protagonists, which make an effort to keep only them in focus and the rest of the world a blur, capture the exact moment that otherwise confident, in-control characters realize their insecurities. It is a singular frame that extends to and affects especially the film’s consumer-audience.

Yet hope is not lost, Assayas presupposes. His films are pulpy — not quite removed from reality, but not quite grounded entirely either. There is time to change things — the world is yet to resemble his cyber-punk dystopia.

Such a stark worldview on this newfangled interconnectedness and the global economy, and such focus on the women lost in all the commotion rests itself in Assayas’ tastes and style, and one would not be too hardpressed to figure out his proposed solution. Whereas most filmmakers see themselves as masters of their own realm, Assayas recognizes that he too is just another cog in the machine. He elucidates this in a personal dogma: “There are filmmakers who define a world for themselves — space, characters, style, genre — and they will make that kind of film forever…” he starts before finishing, “whereas you have other movies… in which cinema is a way of exploring the world” (Jones 9).

This is a pronged statement. It is at once an explanation for his fascination for far-flung cultures and his investigation into the amalgamation of such cultures — the blending of cultural worldviews is, in the real world, still an ongoing phenomenon. It is also a concession of inadequacy, and a concession of cinema’s inadequacy, and a general desire to understand better. It is an interesting take on Sarris’ auteur theory, which stipulates the “distinguishable personality of the director as a criterion of value,” and emphasizes a thematic throughline or recurring style (Sarris). Then what to make of Assayas, who is both one of the most unique and influenced directors of his time?

Return in time and follow the second thematic through-line of his filmography. It is funny then that his other major works either champion the romantic idealism at the heart of terrorism or deal with the preservation of the past, simpler times (perhaps when radical terrorism was ideological and not wholly corporate as it is today): Carlos portrays its eponymous terrorist as a rockstar while Something in the Air paints its teenage revolutionaries as tragically romantic groupies, unable to live up to their idol’s standards (but applauded for trying); Clean and Clouds of Sils Maria show the broadening gap between this technology-addled generation and the last, while Summer Hours affirms it, showing the permanent loss of the past that occurs with generational transition through a trio of children too busy with work (economy eclipsing sentimentality and art) to retain their childhood home and family artifacts.

This obsession with the past makes more sense with his background taken into consideration.The “Cahiers du Cinema” might just be the most successful film school in the world. For years, it has been churning out “punk” filmmakers: independent directors angry at the systems which birthed them. Pens down, cameras in hand, they lead the vanguard of the French New Wave and revolutionized the standards of filmmaking in the late 50s, thereby staking their claim in the annals of film history by politicizing and radicalizing film, which had, up until that point, been majoritively escapist. But “the whole generation of the Nouvelle Vague considered themselves as children and didn’t want to be fathers,” Assayas mentions, in an interview — so just as its founding members (Godard and Truffaut, Rohmer and Chabrol) completely redefined the period that they worked in with the spirit of youthful iconoclasm and dissentious outrage by rebelling against the industry in both style and content, s to does the work of Olivier Assayas, whose work marks the beginning of a second generation of “Cahier” writers- turned directors embody the free-spirited nature of his predecessors by quickly ditching the means of which they reworked the industry (Jones 20).  Appropriately beginning at the turn of the millennium with Irma Vep in 1996, Assayas enters his love-hate relationship with the modern world, developing a new brand of cinema that can accurately be considered “post-punk”.

Though he retains the political mindedness of his predecessors: In May 1968, the Cannes Film Festival persisted. While his predecessors worked to shut down the festival (Godard famously and quite funnily screamed at a dissenter, “We’re talking about solidarity with the students and the workers and you’re speaking about travelling shots and close-ups. You’re a prick!”), Assayas was swept up in the revolutionary action (Jafaar). Assayas would later uphold the same sort of rebellion against the artform, exposing the silliness of film culture, music culture constantly in his work. Most significantly by stripping away the sheen and revealing the corporate interests at play, but also more playfully through simple parody (see: the superhero movie recreated in Clouds of Sils Maria, to which Binoche’s character can only respond to with an exhausted sigh).

Tension transcends the screen with the aforementioned division between individuals and the society which they operate in and afflicts his professional life, which extends from his personal life. Political influences are inextricable from his work. He mentions in an interview “that radicality in cinema involved just being outside of the world of modern images,” and cites the “intellectual influence of Guy Debord,” the Marxist theorist and eventual filmmaker, whose revolutionary themes manifest itself in the protestive nature of Assayas’ artwork (Pinkerton). Assayas would dedicate a memoir of the era to him titled Une Adolescence dans L’apres Mai. “There did, then, exist an idea of revolution that articulated its theory based on the world as it really presented itself,” he mentions in another interview — though the films do speak for themselves (Jones 18).

Tension emerges stylistically as well.  It is safe to assume some allegiance to the approach of his predecessors, but he quickly kills his idols. He turns to other nations, adopting an international repertoire of new influences that conflate into his own emphatically unique style. This makes itself known not only through his films, but through his writing as well: With Conversation avec Bergman and hou hsiao hsien, he expresses his love for elegance and the romance of everyday life embodied in the films of the Swiss and Hong Kong directors; with Eloge de Kenneth Anger and John Cassavetes, he pays tribute to the raw energies and self-hating demeanors of the American avant-garde scene and indie scenes.

For the magazine Film Comment, and many others, he writes on the formal influence of French minimalist and director’s director Robert Bresson — “I felt that if cinema could reach the heights Bresson had reached, then it was worth it to follow that path and devote one’s life to the practice” (Jones 226). Yet, in spite of all of his respect and admiration for the director’s director, his films are nothing like those of Bresson’s. Compare Assayas’ emotional largesse to Bresson’s more insular emotions, or the former’s far-flung thriller narratives to the latter’s small, concise plots, or even the camera styles — frenetic, hyperactive cameras compared to focused, stationary ones. These styles combined form a fascinating hybrid, with the two extremes — political radicality in thought and maximalist tendencies in execution is juxtaposed with very contradictorily muted tones — tugging at each other to form an accessible balance, parts urgent caricature, parts grounded realism. The frequently mentioned romantic ideal is not always practical, and Assayas is not just complaining, regretting his golden days. His work is neither cynical nor hopeless. His work just is.

Something in the Air.jpg

In an interview with writer Christopher Wallenberg, Assayas confirms this tension: “part of becoming yourself is rejecting the hive mind of your generation. That’s how you grow up and become your own person. But in the ’70s, it was even tougher because that generation was connected by this responsibility towards revolution… So it was betraying the political beliefs of your generation” (Boston Globe). The title of the interview reminds us: “Olivier Assayas says Something in the Air not about nostalgia.”

As Something in the Air progresses, the impracticality of the teenagers’ ideology becomes more evident. Their friendships dissolve as they split up and become adults. Assayas’ surrogate Gilles works on a movie set as a production assistant: the film is about dinosaurs and cavewomen, and nazis and their submarines — caricatured remnants of time gone by. Not all is lost however; Gilles’ silhouette walks behind an island paradise set piece and he returns to an iconoclastic temperament. He attends a showcase of experimental films (a genre that rejects industry norms) and watches in awe. This diptych of the coexisting relationship between the commercial and the avant-garde further evinces the tensions outlining his work and a balance is felt. Between cynicism and romanticism. Between arthouse and exploitation. Between art and anarchy. Between past and present.

Between that lonely woman, and the loud faceless mass engulfing her.



Works Cited:

Boarding Gate. Dir. Olivier Assayas. MK2 Diffusion, 2007

Carlos. Dir. Olivier Assayas. MK2 Films, 2010.

Clean. Dir. Olivier Assayas. ARP Selection, 2004.

Clouds of Sils Maria. Dir. Olivier Assayas. Les Films Du Losange, 2014.

Demonlover. Dir. Olivier Assayas. 2002.

Irma Vep. Dir. Olivier Assayas. Dacia Films, 1996.

Jafaar, Ali. “Deadline Disruptors: A Look Back At How Francois Truffaut And Jean-Luc Godard Brought The Revolution To Cannes In 1968.” Deadline. 15 May. 2016. Web. 19 Mar. 2017.

Jones, Kent, ed. Olivier Assayas. Wien: Austrian Film Museum, 2012. Print.

Koresky, Michael. “demonlover: five takes (New Flesh).” Reverse Shot. Museum of the Moving Image, 18, September 2003. Web. 16 Mar. 2017.

Macfarlane, Steve. “Between Utopias: Olivier Assayas with Joshua Sperling.” The Brooklyn Rail. 3 Apr. 2013. Web. 08 Mar. 2017.

Personal Shopper. Dir. Olivier Assayas. Les Films Du Losange, 2016.

Pinkerton, Nick. “Olivier Assayas.” Reverse Shot. Museum of the Moving Image, 20 Mar. 2008. Web. 08 Mar. 2017.

Shaviro, Steven. “Boarding Gate.” The Pinocchio Theory. 8 April. 2008. Web. 16 Mar. 2017.

Shaviro, Steven. “Cognitive Capitalism.” The Pinocchio Theory. 3 Feb. 2008. Web. 19 Mar. 2017.

Something in the Air. Dir. Olivier Assayas. MK2 Diffusion, 2012.

Summer Hours. Dir. Olivier Assayas. MK2 Films, 2009.

Wallenberg, Christian. “Olivier Assayas says ‘Something in the Air’ not about nostalgia.” Boston Globe. 11 May 2013. Web. 16 Mar. 2017.

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