MAKING CONNECTIONS BETWEEN THE CINEMA, POLITICS AND REAL LIFE: AN INTERVIEW WITH OLIVIER ASSAYAS
BY STEVE ERICKSON
This article was originally published in CINEASTE, Vol. XXII No. 4.
As the centennial of the birth of cinema has approached and passed, we've seen a number of remarkable films about filmmaking, from filmmakers as different as Stanley Kwan, Abbas Kiarostami and Mark Rappaport. Olivier Assayas' IRMA VEP is one of the most entertaining and accessible film of this semi-genre. Beginning with the arrival of Hong Kong star Maggie Cheung (playing herself) in Paris to appear in a remake of Louis Feuillade's LES VAMPIRES, directed by the depressed Rene Vidal (Jean-Pierre Leaud), whose better days seem to be behind him, it tracks the descent of the production into entropy. Vidal sinks into self-pity, and most of the cast and crew would rather be somewhere else. Including excerpts from Feuillade's film, Johnny To's Hong Kong fantasy HEROIC TRIO and the SLON Group's ClLASS STRUGGLE, Irma Vep brings early cinema, the French New Wave, Hollywood and Hong Kong action films, and the avant-garde (as well as the baggage that Leaud and Cheung bring with them) into collision. It seems that absolutely nothing has come out of the filmmaking process; even the fantasies of Vidal and Zoe, the film's lesbian costume designer (Natalie Richard), remain unfulfilled. The narrative disintegrates rather than ending, but it closes with a stunning film-within-the-film which affirms that art can come out of the most unlikely situations.
Like all the best films about filmmaking, IRMA VEP ultimately points to the world beyond the screen. It asks how one can make movies in a period where worldwide audiences have come to mistake Hollywood product for the entirety of cinema. And not just how to make movies - implicitly, it raises the question of whether and under what terms it is possible to make any kind of art without bowing to corporate culture. If it's a lament for what the cinema has become, it's a lament without the melancholy nostalgia that characterizes many contemporary discussions about cinephilia. As fast-paced and hip as a Hong Kong action film, IRMA VEP is the antithesis of the neo-Tradition of Quality period pieces that seem to be the only new French films American distributors care about.
Assayas began making shorts in 1979 and started writing for CAHIERS DU CINEMAthe following year. Additionally, he worked on the screenplays for Andre Techine's RENDEZVOUS and SCENE OF THE CRIME and, with Stig Bjorkman, conducted a book-length with Ingmar Bergman, published in French in 1990 as CONVERSATIONS AVEC BERGMAN. He made the leap to feature filmmaking in 1986, with DISORDER
The look of Assayas' early films, developed in collaboration with cinematographer Denis Lenoir, is quite distinctive, marked by somber lighting, hyperactive camera movement and extensive use of long takes. His first three films, DISORDER, WINTER'S CHILD (1989) and PARIS AT DAWN (1991), were treated with the silver retention process later used in Seven, producing a monochromatic palate dominated by blues and blacks. DISORDER focuses on the gradual disintegration of a mediocre rock band, three of whose members kill a man in the process of breaking into a music store to steal instruments; WINTER'S CHILD on a love quadrangle revolving around a theater troupe.
If the mood of adolescent depression that dominates DISORDER and WINTER'S CHILD sometimes seems a little secondhand, it becomes clear with PARIS AT DAWN and A NEW LIFE that there's a political focus to Assayas'vision. His interest in young people doesn't cater to "Generation X" stereotypes; rather, these films trace the ways in which people come to terms with adulthood in a world in which, as he says in the following interview, "Every person has a life story which is singular, but everyone is expected to adapt to society." PARIS AT DAWN follows Louise (Judith Godreche) as she drifts from her middle-aged lover, Clement, (Jean-Pierre Leaud) to his son (Thomas Langmann) and from being a junkie squatter to a TV weather person, without ever taking control over her life.
A NEW LIFE is Assayas' only film in 'Scope. Paradoxically, it's also his most claustrophobic. There are few establishing shots, and the camera often takes the point of view of someone staring at his or her feet. It tracks Tina (Sophie Aubry), a forklift driver in a warehouse, as she searches for her missing father and pursues ambiguous relationships with her father's lawyer, Constantine (Bernard Giraudeau), and her half-sister Lise (Godrecehe.) It's also Assayas' most elliptical narrative, switching abruptly from one narrative strand to another with a particularly abrasive sound design and use of editing. The viewer is often placed in the position of Tina, for whom family connections are fundamentally mysterious and nearly impossible to fit into a coherent narrative.
The 1994 COLD WATER was made for the French TV series ALL THE BOYS AND GIRLS OF THEIR TIME, which also produced Andre Techine's WILD REEDS. Set in 1972, it centers on a troubled teenage couple: Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet) and Christine (Virginie Ledoyen), whose father has her sent to a mental hospital after she is arrested for shoplifting. She escapes, and meets up with Gilles at a party in a country house. The party sequences, which take up most of the last half of the film, are an extraordinary mix of the lyricism of an MGM musical and the anger of punk rock. Lenoir's camera exuberantly swerves and leaps to the rhythms of a selection of rock songs by Alice Cooper, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Nico, Janis Joplin and others. The film doesn't romanticize the era: in the end, the characters' destructive urges are realized rather than their utopian hopes. Nevertheless, it's the first Assayas film that seems exhilarating rather than claustrophobic.
I talked to Assayas in New York on the ocassion of a retrospective at the Walter Remade Theater in March 1996 and during the New York Film Festival in September 1996.
S:Before making your first feature, DISORDER, in 1986, you wrote film criticism for five years. For you, was criticism a way of breaking into filmmaking?
OA:When I was very young, I decided I wanted to make films. The first shorts I made were very immature, and I thought the problem was in the writing. I had studied literature, but I had never written fiction and I had never written anything to be published. At that point, I met the editors from CAHIERS DU CINEMA, and I had the opportunity to write for the magazine. They were looking for new, young writers, possibly people who were planning to become filmmakers. I realized that I needed to go through a phase of reflection on what I wanted to do, and what I wanted to get out of filmmaking. For me, writing on film was a way of approaching the medium and to try to solve questions about how to make films, how to work with actors, how to approach film as an art or whatever it is. At the same time, I kept on directing shorts, and I was starting to write screenplays for features. Writing was very important for me. Film theory has a bad name because people think that filmmaking is all action, but I think it's all very much connected. It's very important to have a reflection on the process of creation. I think every movie is based on ideology, even the most simple ones.
S:Do you think there's a certain ambivalence towards the Nouvelle Vague expressed in your casting of people like Gerard Blain, Laszlo Szabo and Jean-Pierre Leaud? In your films, they often play fathers who have troubled relationships with their children.
OA:I give them very different parts from the parts they would've gotten in Nouvelle Vague films. If there's an ambivalence, that's where it is. One simple way of putting it is that they are obviously the actors of their generation that I respect. They have an approach to acting that is close to what I expect. Also, they don't get much work in the French cinema these days. What also comes into consideration is that Blain and Szabo are directors. I always expect a little more from the people I work with than just to be actors. I like people with experience that goes beyond acting, and who can build on that experience instead of just acting techniques. What's interesting in the case of Jean-Pierre Leaud is that he has always been used as Leaud. I don't know how many movies he's been in where they would just put him in and tell him to do a Leaud act. He is not an eternal young man. He is a middle-aged man now, and he can bring out deeper emotions, but nobody had tried to bring this out of him.
S:In writing and shooting IRMA VEPvery quickly, was the idea to try to re-capture the spontaneity and simplicity of early cinema?
OA:Of course. I wanted so much to make a film about the confusion of the present, an instinctive, completely unconscious Polaroid of today. There is a basic structure within the film, which is very simple. I made this film because I had an idea I liked very much: a Chinese actress being lifted out of her world in Hong Kong, taken to France, just discovering French cinema and watching it with a new eye, with French people around her trying to explain it in English. When you're speaking a foreign language, you say things much more bluntly and violently than when you speak your native langugage. I like the idea of all these characters speaking their mind to her, which they probably wouldn't do in French, about filmmaking and about the way they feel about their friends. I knew there was a film in this structure, and I knew I could invent things and take risks.
S:Are there a lot of people in France who have the same opinions as the "journalist who loves John Woo" (Antoine Basler) who interviews Maggie Cheung?
OA:Absolutely! He definitely represents a current in French filmmaking. There are many people who believe the truth of today's cinema can only be found in American and Hong Kong cinema, and that films which don't directly depict violence are weak and out of synch with the times. The things the journalist is saying are taken almost word-for-word from things I've heard Matthieu Kassovitz say. I think a lot of Hong Kong films are aesthetically interesting, but they're successful with American audiences for all the wrong reasons. John Woo is a really interesting filmmaker and very strong visually, but the kind of recognition someone like him gets says a lot about the degree of abstraction that both American movies and audiences have gotten into.
S:Well, in a way, Irma Vep seems like your most Americanized film, especially in the pacing and in the fact that it's mostly in English.
OA:But it's in very bad English. That's part of the joke. I'm more or less familiar with American culture. I love many aspects of it, like many French people. But French culture is my culture and the source of my references. It makes me crazy when I constantly hear French people say that we should make big-budget films in English because they can make lots of money in the U.S. These people don't really understand American culture or the English language. They usually speak a very poor English. If they want a film in English, IRMA VEP is it! I didn't care if the actors spoke English or not. I just gave them the lines and told them to do what they can. The actor who plays the journalist learned his lines phonetically and didn't understand most of what he was saying. I never re-shot a scene because the language was hard to understand.
S:Do you think that French independent films could reach a larger American audience if they were released in the U.S.?
OA:I'm sure that films by people like Pascale Ferran or Judith Cahen would interest a lot of people here. There used to be the idea that European cinema had something to say to American cinema, and vice versa. I think this idea is coming back, even if the distribution system isn't yet aware of it. We have an enemy in common because the film industry has gotten much stronger and even more crassly reactionary than in the '60s and '70s. . The problem is that now, what's lacking is a common ideology. People believe in the same things more or less, but they have a lot of trouble articulating them. What's wrong with the way cinema functions is a symptom of things that are wrong with society.
S:Do you think your interest in people who are on the threshold of society is a reflection of your status as an independent filmmaker?
OA:I wouldn't have said it that way, but it's a nice way of putting it. Because I end up having that kind of relationship with the mainstream industry. Sometimes, people are more interested in independent filmmaking because it's the only way they can make films. For me, it's different. PARIS AT DAWN and DISORDER were successful movies. The way I've chosen to make films has been a conscious move. I think that whatever is interesting in film I can only do in a situation of complete freedom. I can only have freedom if I'm working with a small or medium budget. Also, in many ways, making independent films has to be a political gesture. The film industry has become one of the ugliest things in this society. It is becoming like TV. Most of what's produced is just stuff to make people passive. The whole ideology of entertainment makes people believe that the only relationship they can have with a work of art is to sit back and receive things, not a political or personal relationship. The problem with people's attitudes today is that they sit back and feel they can't do a thing against the system. On the contrary, I think people should be able to have a dialogue and answer back. How can you answer back to a Hollywood film? I think that any work of art should be something you should be able to answer to. When the film is over, you can agree or disagree, but it should touch your emotions, make you think. In a way, it should make you work. It's an exchange. That's what art is about for me. I think highly enough of cinema to be disgusted with the way the film industry has developed. I don't want to use big words, but working with the film industry as it is is a kind of collaborationist attitude.
S:It's ironic that the roots of some of the commercial cinema that you're criticizing, especially the BATMAN series, come from Feuillade's films or other silent films.
OA: That's a point the film deliberately makes. Even though he's a comic character, a lot of what Rene Vidal (Jean-Pierre Leaud) says is absolutely true. Rene is not really doing a remake of LES VAMPIRES, he's re-making the character of Irma Vep. I'm not dealing with Feuillade himself or the entire film. How do you transform a character from the movies of the past to the movies of today? It's interesting is that Irma has had a life of her own. She's only in LES VAMPIRES for half an hour. She's a very strong and important character, but not the center of the story. Everybody has forgotten about all the other characters. You've seen her through the whole history of filmmaking, from Alfred Hitchcock's TO CATCH A THIEF to Catwoman in BATMAN RETURNS. She pops up in Hong Kong cinema, and in fashion photography. Really, she's an archetype. The film is about how an archetype is discovered, and how it has to be re-made for every generation.
S:The character of Rene is very ambiguous. He seems like a buffoon, but the film-within-the-film at the end changed my opinion of him. Until then, he seems to have interesting ideas but much more artistic temperament than talent.
OA:The movie is about the mysterious ways of art, how it pops up when it's least expected. The way Rene makes a film is very weird, but the process of making any form of art has to be weird, in many ways. The character is easy to make fun of, but getting into a depression is his way of working. It's a method that works for him. I even respect the ideas of Jose Murano (Lou Castel), the director who takes over. Lou's performance is a little exaggerated, but Jose is just someone who has to relate in a very primal, simple way to the character. He can't understand why a Chinese woman should be in the part.
S:A NEW LIFE and PARIS AT DAWN strike me as being your most overtly political films, especially in the way the workplace is depicted and how it affects the characters' sexuality.
OA:What interests me about PARIS AT DAWN and A NEW LIFE is that they are both about youths who have to become adults. The key is that the characters are people who have to get into a society that's hostile to them in many ways. I think society is hostile to individuality. If young people are raised with any kind of moral values, they have to drop them completely to become involved in adult society. It's becoming uglier and uglier, and there is no alternative. They don't have the option of becoming Marxists, or something that would give them the knowledge and conviction that something else exists and that things can be different. Because of the backlash to ideology and politics and the situation in Eastern Europe, it's not an option that's presented to them. I think it's even worse here, in many ways. Every person has a life story which is singular, but everybody is expected to adapt to society. The values of this society are destroying what's most precious in people. In those 2 films, the characters come to terms with this process. They have to decide how to fight against it, how to find their own path, how to resist or whether to resist. The character of Louise conforms and adapts, taking a ridiculous job making an ass of herself. What society expects from her is to be like a ghost or a zombie, a totally blank person delivering the weather. But maybe she'll outgrow that
S:The quote from CLASS STRUGGLE, the film by Chris Marker's SLON group that we see an excerpt from in IRMA VEP, ("The cinema is not magic. It is the result of an operation of science and will, the will of the workers to free themselves.") seems to be contradicted by the film itself, which suggests that cinema is deeply irrational.
OA:I don't think I'm offering just one statement about filmmaking. IRMA VEP is much more dialectical, in in the sense that it's trying to express contradictions and the idea that thinking about a subject can be an end in itself. That quote was something that came into the film very late. I wanted to put excerpts from a movie into IRMA VEP, but I had no idea which one. I wanted to remember people like SLON who, not so long ago, 20 years ago, had a political approach to filmmaking. There could be an obvious and strong connection between films, politics and real life. Now, that's lost. Those kinds of connections can create beauty, also. SLON's kind of filmmaking had a beauty that came very close to silent filmmaking.
S:It also seems that the movie is about the relase of the unconscious on the part of the filmmakers. The filmmaking process seems to encourage them live out their fantasies, especially their sexual fantasies.
OA:The film Rene makes is completely sexual, about sadomasochistic desire. In a way, the fantasies have when a film is being made are artistically valid. When you make films, it's interesting to speculate about the connections between the effort of filmmaking and the final product. The collective energy of filmmaking can sometimes be stronger than the final result. That the act of shooting a film can be like a Happening in the '60s, an ephemeral art object, in and of itself. Sometimes you see movies that are completely devoid of artistic value, but the experience of making the film wasn't. Everyone on the set had their own intense emotional input in the fabrication of the film.