This month: Olivier Assayas
‘You are now in French territory.’ That is the last bit of dialogue uttered in “Carlos,” Olivier Assayas’s new film. The words are addressed to the protagonist — the Venezuelan-born terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sánchez, whose nom de guerre gives the movie its title — by law-enforcement officials who have, after more than 20 years (and nearly five and a half hours of screen time), finally and somewhat anticlimactically succeeded in capturing him.
No spoilers here! The historical record will show that the real Carlos, implicated in dozens of attacks across Europe in the 1970s and ’80s — most notoriously a bloody hostage-taking at an OPEC conference in Vienna in 1975 — is currently a guest of the French penal system. Convicted in 1997, he is serving a life sentence for the murders of two French officers, whom he gunned down in an apartment on the Rue Touillier in Paris, and of an erstwhile colleague of his from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (P.F.L.P.). That event, and the OPEC operation, serve as dramatic centerpieces in Assayas’s movie, a three-part miniseries broadcast on French television last spring and then released, at more conventional feature length, in theaters in France over the summer. Though the real Carlos has not seen either version, he did issue vaguely menacing challenges to its accuracy in the weeks leading up to its big-screen debut at the Cannes Film Festival in May. (“Carlos,” based on painstaking research by an American journalist, Stephen Smith, carries a disclaimer stating that it should be taken as a fictionalized version of actual events.)
In Cannes, the movie encountered a controversy that had less to do with veracity or its political implications than with its format — a territorial quarrel involving the historical (and increasingly obsolete) antagonism between film and television. Shown as part of the festival’s official program, “Carlos” was denied a spot in the main competition on the grounds that, because it was largely financed by the French television channel Canal+ and was intended for broadcast, it did not count as cinema. This ruling seemed arbitrary and absurd, and not simply because there was plenty of movie money (from the network’s corporate sibling StudioCanal, and also from German companies) behind the project. “Carlos” was shot on 35-millimeter stock in the widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio and directed by a man whose immersion in all that is holy in French film goes back at least to a youthful stint as a writer for Cahiers du Cinéma.
By now, if nothing else, the basic question of the status of “Carlos” has been addressed. “ ‘Carlos’ is a film, no matter its length,” Le Monde declared in July, settling the issue by stating the obvious. (North American viewers, perhaps less hung up on these distinctions, will be able to choose among formats and running times. The longer, three-part cut, which popped up at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend, will be shown at the New York Film Festival next week and broadcast starting Oct. 11 on the Sundance Channel. The film will then be released in theaters across the country, in both its full and condensed versions. But given the argument about the essential nature of “Carlos” — which Assayas and his producers may have anticipated as they shepherded the project through a complicated process of financing and production — the film’s final words might be taken as a half-ironic, belated declaration of patrimony, a reminder to the audience that, appearances to the contrary, we have been in French territory all along.
Over the past quarter century or so, Assayas has emerged as a mainstay of what might be called the middle generation of post-New Wave French auteurs — filmmakers who still labor in the shadow of a heroic band of ancient young rebels, many of whom have shown remarkable, even maddening longevity. Erich Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, part of the groups that burst out of Cahiers in the late 1950s and early ’60s, died this year, at 89 and 80. Jacques Rivette, Agnès Varda and Alain Resnais are all still around, in their 80s, as is Jean-Luc Godard, perpetual imp and inscrutable sage of le cinéma français, who may or may not show up to collect an honorary Oscar in November.
Assayas, a slender, silver-haired man of 55, with a feathery voice and a slightly nervous manner, is part of a consciously late-born cohort. He is the author of a slim memoir called “Une Adolescence dans l’Après-Mai”— mai being the talismanic month in 1968 when to be young and French was very heaven — and has a skeptical, post-’60s approach to politics and art. His films — there were 12 features before “Carlos,” as well as shorts and documentaries — are cerebral and personal but also highly eclectic and sometimes characterized by a cool, sleek eroticism. They fit into established genres, and yet they don’t. “Carlos” is a globe-trotting thriller; “Late August, Early September” is a tale of 30-something romantic indecision; “Cold Water” is a coming-of-age story; “Irma Vep” is a behind-the-scenes comedy about moviemaking; “Clean” is a melodrama of recovery. But in each case the stories veer away from expectations, and nearly every scene carries nuances that thwart assimilation.
This summer, after years of encountering Assayas through the fugitive medium of his films, I tracked him down in France. We sat in the tidy, sloping garden of a house in Saint-Rémy-Lès-Chevreuse, a quiet town south of Paris, at the end of the RER commuter rail line that passes through a belt of industrial suburbs on its way to this green and tranquil terminus. It was a mild July afternoon, during which the most serious business was the preparation of lunch, a leisurely meal followed by a stroll through the wooded paths that gave the area an ancient, rustic feeling in spite of a scattering of recently built bungalows on subdivided lots.
The house — L-shaped, split-level, of indeterminate age and filled with books, family keepsakes and objets d’art — was where Assayas spent his childhood, far enough away from the capital to feel like an outsider when he arrived there.
He was, nonetheless, a child of the film industry, or at least of a well-known screenwriter, Jacques Rémy, who was part of the non-New Wave cinematic establishment. “French cinema for me,” Assayas told me at one point, “was the associates of my father’s who would come to the house, guys in suits, smoking pipes.”
Some of them gave the young man work, assisting on international co-productions in Hungary and England, running errands on set and working in the editing room on “Superman.
But my own immediate cinematic association, sitting in the sunshine with the afternoon stretching out ahead of us, was with “Summer Hours,” the movie Assayas made before “Carlos” and one that seems in every respect its opposite. The setting — and in some ways the central character — in “Summer Hours” is a house very much like the one in Saint-Rémy, albeit somewhat grander and a degree or two more picturesque.
In that film, a family matriarch, played by Edith Scob, gathers her children and grandchildren around her and wonders what they will do with the place and its contents — which include valuable works of art and design, some of them lent to the production by the Musée d’Orsay — after she dies. When she does, her three children (Jérémie Renier, Charles Berling and Juliette Binoche) try to adjudicate between their sentimental attachment to the past and their awareness that the practical imperatives of their lives make it impossible to hold on to the house.
This is a bald summary of a rich and moving film, and also one that seems — perhaps subversively, perhaps partly by design — to embody an American cliché of French cinema. It is set among highly educated, materially comfortable citizens of the Republic — well-spoken, sophisticated people with interesting jobs, relationships that are complicated but not melodramatically so and ample leisure time. They attend carefully to the preparation and serving of even simple meals and smoke and drink enough to solicit the envy of American viewers, but not so much as to risk our puritanical disapproval. I believe I mentioned that Juliette Binoche is in it.
Seductive as its slow, exquisitely shot Gallic elegance may be, “Summer Hours” — as compact and modest a film as “Carlos” is wide-ranging and audacious — aims not to fetishize French culture but rather to wonder, with poignant clarity and understated toughness, about its place in the world. The emptying of the old woman’s house and the dispersal of her property (to state institutions pledged to conserve and care for it, as well as to the kids and her loyal housekeeper) are not accompanied by excessive nostalgia. Assayas’s commitment to reality, to the detailed appraisal of things as they happen, is too strong to allow that kind of sentiment.
A stark and sobering sense of the world pervades the gentleness of “Summer Hours,” which turns out to share an important theme with “Carlos.” Both films are driven by a concern with the effects and contradictions of globalization. Carlos is an avowed internationalist, which, according to the lexicon of the time, is a political stance. And “Carlos,” in contrast to more parochial cinematic treatments of the politics of the time (dramas like “United Red Army,” “The Baader Meinhof Complex” or “Good Morning, Night,” set amid the militants of Japan, Germany and Italy) insists on seeing its characters as part of a global network of revolutionary politics. Their revolution, of course, never happened, but what was sometimes called “the Carlos Network” or “the Carlos Group” was nonetheless in the vanguard of future developments. Nowadays, something called “the Carlos Group” might be a global consulting firm, based in Miami or Madrid, sending its operatives into various markets to broker complex deals and housing them in conference centers and corporate apartments rather than training camps and safe houses. The brother played by Charles Berling in “Summer Hours,” a prominent economist, is well versed in the ebbs and flows of transnational capital, at least in theory. His sister and younger brother, for their parts, bob and swim in those currents, the brother having moved to Shanghai with his wife and children, the sister borne in the other direction to America.
These uprootings are hardly tragic — each character pursues comfort and happiness, and sacrificing any of it to filial piety or nationalist feeling would hardly fit with their liberal, individualistic views of the world. But an undertow of loss, of sorrow, nags at the film, which Assayas began shooting in the wake of his mother’s death in 2007. At the same time, though, the thread that stretches forward to “Carlos” — the sense that characters plot their destinies not just within the bonds of family or on local soil but also in an invisible web of global events and processes — also reaches back into many of Assayas’s earlier films. Sandra, the former prostitute played by Asia Argento in “Boarding Gate” (2007), can be seen as both an heir and a precursor of Carlos. She is embroiled in a mysterious, ultimately opaque skein of interlocking conspiracies and accidents — involving large sums of cash, drug smuggling and pirated DVDs — that are not so much the explanation as the pretext for her adventures.
In one sense, “Boarding Gate” is, quite deliberately, a genre pastiche, a self-consciously trashy international sex thriller whose atmosphere outstrips its narrative logic. But that atmosphere is also the point. The fluorescence of computer screens and airports, the jet-lagged consciousness that combines fatigue, restlessness, emptiness and erotic longing — all of this needs a structure of fantasy to make it seem real. And the same might be said about the hallucinatory “Demonlover,” a boardroom thriller whose narrative content — it’s about multinational corporations racing to corner the market in interactive animated cyberporn — is as objectively ludicrous as its emotions are disturbing and intense. The characters in that film, played by Berling, Chloë Sevigny and Connie Nielsen, among others, are a kind of Carlos Group of international mergers and acquisitions, so bogged down in betrayals and tactical reversals that their strategic goals seem to evaporate. They dwell in a perpetual limbo of hotel rooms, airport lounges and sleek, impersonal office buildings, their anomie hard to distinguish from desire.
The narrative of “Demonlover” shifts almost imperceptibly from carefully plotted intrigue into something more dissociative and hallucinatory, as if the abstract nature of money, the virtual landscapes of the Internet and the dream logic of cinema had converged to produce a new, hybrid form of experience. And while not all of Assayas’s films are so extreme, that mood of anomie and disorientation is a hallmark of his style. His camera tends to drift through space like a silent, embodied consciousness — not so much a fly on the wall but an unseen, spectral presence intruding on the intimacy or the solitude of the characters, taking notice of things about them that they cannot express.
And this approach, which quietly subverts the conventional visual language of film, gives Assayas’s movies a strong, almost uncanny present-tense feeling. This is true even of those few that are set in the past, like “Carlos,” “Les Destinées Sentimentales” (a long and lush costume drama adapted from a historical novel by Jacques Chardonne) and the early “Cold Water,” drawn from recollections of his own adolescence. Rarely do you feel you are being drawn through the mechanisms of a predetermined plot. Instead you float, along with the characters, through situations, the shape and logic of which are apprehensible only partly and in passing.
Which can make these movies feel a lot like life, even as they make you notice the ways life can seem like a movie. Assayas is especially adept at exploring the tensions between the controlled chaos of cinematic artifice and the less-exalted disorder — “Disorder” being the name of his first feature, by the way — of the everyday.
Nowhere more so than in “Irma Vep,” his 1996 breakthrough feature and a movie that seems now both like a time capsule from that decade and a bulletin from the future. “Irma Vep,” something of a cult object among globally minded cinephiles, is also an exercise in globalist cinephilia. The conceit is very simple: a French director, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, is intent on remaking “Les Vampires,” a silent serial by Louis Feuillade that is one of the great glories (and also one of the great puzzles) of early French cinema. To play the part of Irma Vep, the enigmatic, bodysuited heroine of the movie, the director recruits the Hong Kong action star Maggie Cheung, who plays herself both as a good-natured professional and as a transnational riddle. (Cheung and Assayas were married from 1998 to 2001, after which he cast her in “Clean,” another episodic story of international wandering, in which she plays a recovering addict who travels from Canada to Paris, hoping to reunite someday with her young son.)
“Irma Vep” plants its cosmopolitan flag firmly on French cinematic territory. Léaud, who plays the mercurial, moody filmmaker, is not just any French actor but an avatar of the New Wave, a fixture in the epochal films of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, and as such the embodiment of young French cinema in the old days. And Feuillade’s “ Vampires” is so central to the cinematic patrimony that a rival director rails against Léaud’s choice of a Chinese actress to play Irma Vep. “Irma Vep is France!” he insists.
Irma Vep is also a perpetual mystery — both in the old Feuillade version and in Assayas’s recasting. And so is Carlos, a specter of history turned into flesh and blood through an intricate, obsessive campaign. “Carlos” began with a proposal from the producer Daniel Leconte to tell the story of Carlos’s arrest, focusing on the French government’s behind-the-scenes machinations to pry the fugitive loose from the protective embrace of the Sudanese government. “I thought the interesting story was not the story of how Carlos was caught,” Assayas said, “but the story of Carlos.” The denouement to that story required a prelude, and so he began to sketch out another installment built around the Rue Touillier shootings. But what about the OPEC attack, which was not only Carlos’s big moment on the world stage but also a self-contained movie in its own right, a ’70s-style heist movie full of incident and laced with existential ironies? “I came back and said, I’m extremely sorry. This is getting embarrassing. I don’t think we can do it with two movies. We need three movies.”
With a certain glee, Assayas enumerated the obstacles that would have led most sensible producers — and virtually any American studio executive — to smile politely and wish him better luck elsewhere. “I thought: The central character is a bad guy. It’s a movie about terrorism from the point of view of a terrorist. It’s in all these languages, with no big stars. There’s no way I’m going to get away with this! We are moving out of French-film territory, and I’m not sure where we are going.”
That vertiginous sense of movement infects the audience as well. “Carlos” immerses you in a mobile, borderless reality that seems familiar mainly because of the other recent movies it evokes — restless, globe-trotting, geopolitically inflected thrillers like “Syriana” or the Bourne trilogy. Like Jason Bourne (though without the amnesia or the superhuman fighting skills), Carlos bounces through various hot spots and hiding places like a pinball, a soldier in a cause that is at once grandiose and obscure.
We first meet him in London, where he has landed after a South American childhood followed by training in Moscow, and tracking his movements becomes a challenge and a vicarious thrill.
His marching orders, his militant ambitions and his opportunistic tactical sense send this self-described champion of the oppressed jet-setting across Europe and the Middle East. Paris, Amsterdam, Baghdad, Beirut, Budapest and East Berlin, Aden and Khartoum — these and at least a half-dozen other places figure in Carlos’s itinerary, and “Carlos” doggedly follows in his footsteps, visiting many of his old haunts while approximating a few spots that are, at the moment, less than ideally hospitable for film production. (Assayas had to scuttle plans to shoot in Sudan, the site of Carlos’s capture, and used Lebanon as a stand-in.)
“It was like being a rock band on tour,” Assayas told me one evening at a restaurant in Telluride, where he and Édgar Ramírez, the Venezuelan actor who plays Carlos with rock-star charisma and canny reserve, had repaired for a quick bite before a postscreening Q.-and-A. session. Less like a big-ticket stadium tour, from the sound of it, than a headlong scramble from one hastily booked club date to the next. A core group of around 20 essential actors and crew members bounced around among various locations, encountering large and small logistical frustrations and ultimately delivering a product that, while more than the sum of its parts, seems to cry out for quantification. It was shot in 91 days over six months in nine different countries, with 11 languages spoken on screen (including Japanese, Russian and Hungarian as well as French, English, Arabic and Carlos’s native Spanish) in the course of 319 minutes of conspiratorial whispering, audacious gunplay and Marxist dialectics.
The procedural aspects of “Carlos” are more prominent than its themes, which emerge from the details of the story rather than determining its shape. “It’s a movie about politics, but not a political movie,” Assayas said, and its notion of politics is more tactical than ideological. Its approach to a potentially inflammatory subject is detached and analytical. Carlos is too sexy, too smart, too sensual to be a cipher like Jason Bourne, but at the same time he remains intriguingly opaque, neither entirely a villain, in spite of his appalling crimes, nor a magnet for the audience’s empathy. Early on, sitting in a restaurant with one of the many women in his life, young Ilich waxes passionate about the need to internationalize the armed struggle and stir up the victims of Western imperialism. But what follows is a chronicle, above all, of the deterioration of that idealism, as Carlos and his allies — Palestinian militants; German radicals; Japanese extremists; and Warsaw Pact apparatchiks — descend from grand rhetoric into nihilism and expediency.
“Carlos,” which plays like an international espionage thriller — with car chases, explosives, seductive Bonnie-and-Clyde poses and many, many cigarettes — turns out to be a negative epic, whose self-proclaimed hero, a ruthless and intrepid soldier, builds a legendary career out of a series of failures and miscalculations. A low-level bomb-thrower for the P.F.L.P., he catches the attention of Wadie Haddad, a high-ranking member of the organization, and proceeds to mess up one assignment after another while somehow cultivating a reputation for brutal effectiveness. The turning point is the murders of those French officers on the Rue Touilliers, presented in the film through a brilliantly suspenseful set piece but also, Assayas reminded me, an act of panicky bravado on Carlos’s part. “What would have happened? The police would have taken him in and he would have been out in two weeks. He would be living in exile somewhere now, writing his memoirs.” By shooting the cops and executing an internal rival he believed had betrayed him, Carlos was both advancing his career — clearing the way for himself to take charge of the P.F.L.P.’s European operations — and risking the wrath of his boss. He was also writing a chapter in his own legend. Later, he would blow up the wrong plane at Orly, kill the wrong man during the OPEC siege and fail to carry out a Libyan-sponsored plot to assassinate Anwar Sadat. Egyptian Islamists beat him to it.
In the film’s last third, as the Cold War winds down and the Islamists squeeze out the Marxists in the terrorist arena, Carlos grows stout and cynical behind the Iron Curtain, treated sometimes as a useful pawn and sometimes as a nuisance by the bureaucrats who guard the sputtering flame of the global proletarian revolution. When the Berlin Wall falls, Carlos is swept to the margins of history, lamenting that neither the Americans nor the Israelis have bothered to put a bounty on his head. France, with a long memory and a serious grudge, is the main threat to his freedom and thus the best hope for his continued relevance. What other country would broadcast a five-hour movie about his life?
Is “Carlos” a French movie? It’s not necessarily a salient question — the film is both a throwback to theinternational co-productions of an earlier era and a harbinger of a new kind of multinational, mutliplatform approach to visual narrative. But perhaps only a French filmmaker steeped in a tradition at once local and cosmopolitan could have pulled it off. French cinema — whatever it may be — is part of Assayas’s heritage: his father, from whom he inherited that house in Saint-Rémy, started out as an assistant to Max Ophuls before the Second World War, directed a film for the Free French in South America during the German occupation and returned to a successful career scripting commercial films and “films of quality,” a list of which is inscribed by hand on a wall in the room that was his study.
Jacques Rémy, the French cineaste, was also Rémy Assayas, an Italian Jew brought to France by Ophuls. “I’ve grown up in a multinational family,” Olivier Assayas said over lunch in Saint-Rémy. “I’ve never seen the borders of French culture. My father was French-Jewish Italian; my mother was Hungarian-Austrian; my father lived in Argentina. Friends of my parents spoke every possible language.” But at the same time he was a child in — if not of — the French countryside, connected to the larger world vicariously. “I was cut off from the center of what was going on in those years,” he said, referring to the era of his adolescence and early manhood in the 1970s. “I fantasized it through the newspapers, the music, the comics, and I was especially receptive to the underground culture, the counterculture. I was reading the American alternative press or the English music magazines, and my mental world was pretty much some kind of international pop-culture world.” Punk rock, American horror films, Hong Kong action movies — these set the terms of his post-May adolescence. When he started at Cahiers du Cinéma in the early ’80s (after training to be a painter), the journal was emerging from a period he described as “Stalinian,” devoted to celebrating obscure militant filmmakers and analyzing the speeches of Georges Marchais, the dinosaurlike secretary general of the French Communist Party.
“I was much more interested in Wes Craven, in John Carpenter, in David Cronenberg,” he said. And later he would be among the first French film writers to discover the incipient Taiwanese new wave — filmmakers like Hou Hsaio-Hsien, Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-liang. Their influence, in particular that of Hou (subject of Assayas’s 1997 documentary “HHH”), would prove decisive, in part because of the spirit of contemporaneity their films seemed, almost effortlessly, to capture. In an elegy for Yang, who died in 2007 — and whose films “Yi Yi,” “Mah-jong” and “A Confucian Confusion” must figure in any canon of world cinema in the ’90s — Assayas described him as “a lucid observer, alternately cruel and sympathetic, of the unraveling of the world in which he grew up and its remaking by a new world order — new architecture, new forms of urbanism and a new circulation of capital.”
With some adjustment of emphasis, these words could apply to Assayas himself, whose identity as a French filmmaker is bound up with his global interests — affirmed rather than undermined by his cosmopolitanism. It was hard to imagine anything more French than lunch in the garden, a midday epic prepared by his girlfriend’s mother. Assayas lives with Mia Hansen-Love, a former actress, now a director, most recently of “The Father of My Children.” She was off shooting, so the household consisted of their infant daughter, her nanny and Hansen-Love’s mother, who notified us when it was time to shut off the tape recorder and come to the table for grilled baby onions followed by lamb stew, a selection of local cheeses and an apricot tart.
That pastoral meal would be followed, later in the evening, by a reception at the ministry of culture in Paris, where the theatrical cut of “Carlos” was being shown, amid the grandeur of the Palais-Royal, for a select group of guests, including the French movie star Fanny Ardant. Their immersion in political terror was preceded by canapés and Champagne, flattering remarks from the minister, Frédéric Mitterrand, and abashed but gallant expressions of gratitude from Assayas himself.
Only in France! French film territory is not exactly coterminous with the legal boundaries of the nation-state so dutifully embodied by Carlos’s captors. However much it has reflected and added to the nation’s glory, French cinema has frequently transcended the particulars of geography. The renegades of the New Wave took their cues from Old Hollywood — the “Hitchcocko-Hawksians,” they were sometimes called, in recognition of their debts to Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks. Olivier Assayas, erudite and cerebral, with an elegant eye and a light touch, is both their heir and the importer of other outside influences, from Hou Hsaio Hsien to Sonic Youth (also the subject of one of his documentaries).
“Movies that are purely local,” he said to me, as the afternoon sun warmed the grass in Saint-Rémy, “they are missing an essential dimension of reality. It’s not just that I’ve been attracted to a specific theme” — the theme of perpetual motion across the globe that unites Carlos and Irma Vep and the scattered children of “Summer Hours.” “That theme is me.”
Coutesy of A.O Scott