Olivier Assayas in Bradford

Neil Young (left) interviews Olivier Assayas at the Bradford International Film Festival

The French director was a guest of the Bradford International Film Festival and joined in a ScreenTalk with Neil Young: he also received The Bradford International Film Festival Fellowship 2012, (he is the first foreign language filmmaker to receive this Award). This was followed by his 1996 film Irma Vep starring the Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung. At that time Maggie Cheung was not that well known among European audiences. Bringing her to the attention of this world was an appropriate action by Assayas, as he had established himself originally as a writer and editor for the prestigious Cahiers du cinéma. In his time there he steered the journal, and interest amongst European film critics, to the cinemas of Hong Kong, China and Taiwan. Those cinemas have subsequently become lauded for the films of directors like John Woo (Hong Kong) and Hou Xiaoxian (Taiwan). In keeping with his punk sensibility he expressed an antipathy to Film Theory, though he clearly believes in analysis. He suggested that what is known as Film Theory has been ‘reduced to a system of references, which had become academic’. Unfortunately he did not detail the particular critical writings he was talking about.

I found the interview rather diffuse. We got some sense of Assayas’ work with Cahiers du cinéma, but the conversation focused primarily on Irma Vep and the 2010 epic thriller Carlos. The talk opened with a clip from Irma Vep with a scene in which Maggie Cheung becomes increasingly disorientated. In the film she plays a Hong Kong actress bought to France to appear in an ‘art film’ remake of the classic silent French film serial Le Vampires (1916). Predictably, given my love of early film, I found the first part of the film, which revisits the 1916 silent, fascinating. But the later stages of the film focus on Cheung’s increasing alienation in the strange and backbiting arena of French film. The film was scripted fairly fast and shot even faster, and to be honest I shared Cheung’s disorientation in the later stages.

Neil Young asked Assayas about the use of a punk sound by the band Spiral (Sonic Youth) in the scene in question. Assayas clearly has a love of punk and shares some of their characteristics. Another festival dubbed him a ‘post-punk auteur’. I think this explains the mixture of critical and personal, which feature in Assay’s films, though I prefer a clearer focus on the critical. One comment by Assays summed this up: “I am standing nowhere channelling the chaos.” On the music itself he explained that this is written in the script: that he dislike conventional film scores and aims rather to produce collages.

Assayas does have a strong cinematic background. His father was a screenwriter, Jacques Rémy. He had a sort of apprenticeship in England at the Pinewood studio. One film he worked on was the original Superman: very different in scale and tone from his own films.

His career bears a resemblance to some of the young Turks in the Nouvelle Vague. After his stint on Cahiers du cinéma Assayas was fairly critical of the French cinema in which he emerged in the late 1980s. He expressed eclectic tastes, having praise for Clint Eastwood (especially Honky Tonk Man, 1982), early Cronenberg such as Videodrome (1982), John Carpenter’s Assault of Precinct 13 (1976), and the lesser known ‘sub porn’ filmmaker Jesús Franco. His own film work reflects this eclecticism, Demonlover (2002) tends towards horror with a plot constructed around Japanese anime: whilst Summer Hours (L’heure d’été, 2008 – also screened at the festival) is a family drama constructed round the death of a matriarch.

The latter part of the Talk focussed on Carlos, which tells the story of the ‘terrorist/revolutionary’  ‘The Jackal’ (Ilich Ramírez Sánchez). I find it difficult to judge this film as it was distributed in the UK (and screened at the Festival) in a version running 165 minutes: cut down from a five and half-hour television version. I was conscious of frequent lacunae in the film, which left important gaps in the story of Carlos and also appeared to weaken the political representation of his career. We were shown a clip from the film: a dynamic sequence where Carlos is surprised by the security police at a social gathering and with great aplomb shoots the two policemen and an informant. Both Assayas and Young saw this as the central sequence of the film, partly because this was the action for which Carlos was tried and imprisoned for in 1997.  It seems that the longer version has material on German Revolutionary Cells, an attempted assassination of President Sadat and more detail on his relationship with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. I would hope that this gives greater political substance to the biopic, which in the UK released version tends to present Carlos in a schematic fashion and focuses as much on his inconsistencies as his convictions.

This film is though, like Irma Vep, fascinating and intriguing and the style has great panache. One could pay the same compliment to Assayas, who is a fascinating and talented filmmaker. I rather felt though that we might have learnt more with a tighter focus in the interview.

I did manage to ask him a quick question after the talk about his membership the 2011 Cannes Festival Jury. He said that he voted for Malik’s The Tree of Life for the Palme D’or, but that also he ‘worked very hard to get the Grand Prix for Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Bir zamanlar Anadolu`da)’: he certainly deserves credit for the latter award.

The Festival also screened Late August, Early September (Fin août, début setembre, 1998) with Mathieu Amalric and Virginie Ledoyen. The film also features actress and director Mia Hansen-Løve whose new film, Goodbye First Love, is just released.

Postscript

The full five and half-hour miniseries has now been screened on British television Channel 4 twice. So it is possible to consider the complete film and the differences from the shorter versions distributed to UK cinemas. Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (Carlos) himself has denounced the film for its ‘deliberate falsifications of history’. I think this has some justification, but probably what is most problematic is the characterisation, with Carlos himself depicted as a womaniser and prone to political rhetoric. And the majority of other political activists in the film are not presented so much as political characters but as romanticists or hard-line ideologues.

I di not find the longer version made a lot of difference from this angle. We do get to see the actions of the Japanese Red Army, The German revolutionary Cells, and later their involvement with the Stasi and other EsterEuropeanRepublic’s secret services. But what political discussion or argument are heard tends to the rhetorical. I also thought here were more scenes of a sexual nature in this version.

The film is impressive technically and in managing to maintain narrative interest over such a length. Much of this is due to the cast, especially Edgar Ramírez in the lead role. However, the film fails to find a form that gives expression to the actual nature of the politics of Carlos and the individuals and groups with whom he worked. To be honest I don’t think this would have been a conscious aim of the producers or the director: this fits with the other films by Olivier Assayas.. The first part of Steven Soderberg’s Che is a much better example of how to treat the political discourse of  violent opposition to the status quo. To be fair though, the liberation politics of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro do have more substance than that of the European fellow travellers of the Palestinian struggle of the 1960s to 1980s.

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3 comments

  1. Roy Stafford

    I watched the YouTube clip from this interview and I agree with you that, at least in the 5 minutes I watched, it didn’t really tell us much about globalisation. I’m sure Assayas knows a lot and has interesting ideas but he seemed quite hesitant – perhaps his English isn’t that strong? When I looked back at what I’d written on Summer Hours I found that the film had prompted discussion of the ‘globalised world’ of the characters – but again didn’t seem to carry it through.

    Of course, what I really want to know is what is it like to spend three years married to Maggie Cheung!

  2. Jason Thomas

    In his review for the Village Voice , J. Hoberman wrote, “Carlos is gripping stuff, despite its incongruously fashionable rock soundtrack and a grossly over-played final section. The extended account of the OPEC caper includes the festival’s best hour of filmmaking this side of Godard ‘s Film Socialisme and would make a terrific movie in its own right”.

  3. keith1942

    Well, I suppose the point about Olivier Assayas and Maggie Cheung is that it only lasted seven years.
    Re Carlos, I think it has its moments but as a biopic it has flaws. I prefer Steven Soderberg’s Che Part 1, which i think it cinematically and politically better. Not quite up to Godard, but streets ahead of much of the competition.

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