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Olivier Assayas: Global Cinephilia and Operational Aesthetics

L'Heure d'été (Olivier Assayas, 2008)


French filmmaker Olivier Assayas was in Brussels last week to mark the release of his latest film, Après Mai/Something in the Air (2012). The filmmaker was invited by the art and media centers Argos and Courtisane to dialogue with art historian Eric de Bruyn on the legacy and personal influence of Guy Debord and the lasting impact of Situationism on his work, an event organized in the context of a research project at the Ghent School of Arts, ‘Figures of Dissent’ (for more on the project and the event see the Argos website). At St. Lukas film school, Assayas was interviewed for a masterclass by the artist and writer Herman Asselberghs. Although suffering from a cold, Assayas, a genial and charming conversationalist, was generous with his time to reflect on issues of his work as diverse as his methods of working with actors, his relationship to the New French ‘Sensation Cinema’ or ‘New Radicalism’ of Noë, Dumont and Breillat (for the record: he admires Breillat, is skeptical about Noë, but feels closest to Claire Denis), and his love of long lens cinematography.

Herman, for his part, had put the focus of the masterclass on the geopolitical aspects of Assayas’s recent films, most notably Demonlover (2002), Boarding Gate (2007) and the three-part television miniseries turned into epic six-hour plus movie, Carlos (2010). Asked about the common interpretation of his recent work as a critique of globalization, Assayas replied that globalization is simply an inescapable reality from which the contemporary filmmaker must proceed. His films—often set against backdrops that waver between the hyper-specificity of the local and the faceless non-lieu of the global—are particularly strong at conveying a feeling of psycho-geographic dislocation that accompanies air travel from one part of the world to another.

In Boarding Gate, for instance, a brilliantly conceived scene has Asia Argento (playing a former corporate hostess who is now involved in international trade and drug trafficking) dozing off on a direct flight from a faceless, unrecognizable Paris, to wake up jet-lagged at the other side of the world, in another post-industrial city, Hong Kong, that differs from her point of departure only in its degree of sensory overkill and the few remaining markers of cultural specificity. “You fall asleep on a plane, land in an anonymous airport, take a taxi to a hotel belonging to a global chain, turn on your satellite TV to CNN or BBC World and only gradually realize that you actually are somewhere else,” Assayas mused. “But whether that someplace else is actually Hong Kong or Malaysia seems hardly to make any difference.” This idea is illustrated in Boarding Gate when, upon landing, the passenger’s first impressions are immediately mediated by an in-flight montage of atmospheric but auraless images. When I asked about Boarding Gate’s relation to Abel Ferrara’s unheralded New Rose Hotel (1998)—another corporate thriller starring Asia Argento, based on a short story by cyberpunk author William Gibson, and a movie Assayas had championed upon its release—the point was stressed of Gibson’s prescience: what was science fiction in 1997 by 2007 has become everyday reality.

Having been invited by Herman to teach a seminar on the films of Assayas in relation to global cinema, I focused on the filmmaker’s close connection to the Taiwanese New Cinema, a cinema he helped introduce in the West through his work as a film critic writing for the Serge Daney-Serge Toubiana generation of Cahiers du Cinéma. Asked about his initial discovery of Taiwanese cinema, Assayas explained that he stumbled upon this rich vein of new filmmaking quite by accident, having first made the trip to East Asia in 1983 for a planned issue of Cahiers on the (genre) cinema of Hong Kong. It was only because local critic Chen Kuo-fu told them about all the exciting things going on in Taiwan that the Cahiers delegation added another leg to their trip, in the process discovering filmmakers, like Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang and the Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle (who at the time had just finished photographing Yang’s first feature, That Day, On the Beach), who would, in Assayas’s estimation, “revolutionize the aesthetic of Asian cinema and possibly of global cinema as a whole.”

Hai shang hua/Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1998)

It is not my intention here to retell Assayas’s richly anecdotal discovery tale; for that I refer you to the wonderfully enlightening film he made in 1997, HHH: A Portrait of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, for the TV series ‘Cinéma de nôtre temps’, and to his eloquent elegy for his friend Edward Yang, who died in 2007, published in the January/February 2008 issue of Film Comment. The main question for me was what triggered Assayas’s recognition of Taiwanese cinema as truly ‘new,’ in other words, more ‘new’ than, for instance, Fifth Generation Chinese cinema, or indeed the Hong Kong ‘Cinema City’ style of Tsui Hark and Wong Jing? He explained that his interest arose primarily from the Taiwanese cinema’s integration of autobiography and historiography, i.e. the turbulent political history of Taiwan after martial law was declared by Chiang Kai-chek’s Kuomintang party in 1949, and of formalism with cinematic realism which, contrary to other Chinese and ‘developing’ cinemas was not directly influenced by the tradition of Italian Neorealism. Assayas referred to traditional Chinese narrative and pictorial forms as a more likely source of influence. Then what, I wanted to know, was the relationship of Taiwanese New cinema to Western modernism, if there is a relationship at all? In other words, to what extent could Assayas’s discovery of the ‘newness’ of Taiwanese cinema have resulted from finding modernist formulas where you wouldn’t expect them?

Assayas answered my difficult question somewhat evasively, repeating the by now well-worn opposite characterization of Yang as the cinephile who briefly studied film at UCLA, and Hou as the autodidact, whose cinephiliac frame of reference outside his own native cinema and that of Mainland China and Hong Kong, consisted exactly of two films, Pasolini’s Edipo Re (1967) and Maurice Pialat’s Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble (1972), both tipped by Yang. These scant cinephiliac references were just right for Hou, Assayas argued, inspiring him to develop his own style and ideas about mise en scène and authorial perspective, without having to suffer through any ‘anxiety of influence’, as in the case of Yang and Antonioni. After gaining international recognition with A City of Sadness (winner of the Golden Lion at Venice in 1989) and, especially, Flowers of Shanghai (in competition in Cannes in 1998), Hou started becoming more self-conscious, Assayas—who still maintains a close friendship with the filmmaker—went on, drawing more and more on his developing cinephilia. Given the importance of Hou and Yang to Assayas the critic and cinephile, I wondered to what extent their work informed his own at the level of style.

Although Hou and Yang’s style evolved quite a lot between 1983 and the early nineties, in their mature form their cinema can be said to rely heavily on the poetics of the tableau tradition: employing formalistic framings and figure movement, from the vantage point of either a moving or stationary camera, rather than extensive cutting, both filmmakers seem to have imposed upon their art specific ‘constraints’ that heighten the artistry of the parameters that are put into play. I explored this question during the seminar in relation to Summer Hours (2008), the movie Assayas characterizes as his most ‘Taiwanese’. Although less jittery in its frequently handheld camera work, and less reliant on jump cuts to modulate the movie’s pace than in the movies that bookmark it, Clean (2004) and Carlos, Summer Hours still seems stylistically world removed from Hou and Yang’s minimalist aesthetic and works hard to appear like a movie that was improvised on the spot. Indeed, when asked about his working methods by Filmmaker Magazine, specifically when he knows he is ready to shoot a scene, Assayas stated: “I’m ready to shoot a scene exactly when I’m not ready”. About the shooting of Carlos, he said: “We did not rehearse at all. We would stage these really long, complex shots without any rehearsal, meaning no tech, no rehearsal for the actors for sure, but not even rehearsal for the crew. I would explain these really long tracking shot to the crew, and we would just go from there. We decided that we had no time to try and figure out the blocking – we would just do it.” Still, looking at a crucial scene from Summer Hours, I noticed the kind of attention to blocking and framing as primary means to convey story information and, especially, characterization, that we also find in Hou and Yang. This is a small part of the scene I discussed at length with the students at St. Lukas.

In the scene the family comes together after the matriarch has died to discuss the inheritance and the sale of her house. When we pick up the action, the elder brother, Frédéric (Charles Berling), has just suggested to his siblings and their spouses that they keep the house and the art treasures it contains. His kid brother, Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), is less than thrilled with this plan because he needs the money from an eventual sale to finance his move to Beijing, where his company has relocated him.

Fig. 1: A telephoto framing in which most of the characters are turned away from the viewer or obscured, reflecting the mood of unease that has descended upon the scene. Assayas’s penchant for interior framings and interest in domestic spaces (particularly in this part-Kammerspiel) is clearly in evidence here.

Fig. 2; Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) has moved out of the frame to the left, while Jérémie has moved to the front, revealing his wife, Angela (Valérie Bonneton), who occupies the center of the frame.

Fig. 3: While Angela is talking about settling in Beijing, Adrienne and Frédéric’s wife, Lisa (Dominique Reymond), exit in the front, once again blocking her out.

Fig. 4: As Angela reappears and Frédéric sits down to the left, the camera starts moving in to her…

Fig. 5: … a 180° cut centers the frame on Lisa, as she expresses her skepticism about the relocation.

Fig. 6: Back to the previous angle, with Lisa’s arm taking the place of Frédéric’s head as framing element to the left of the frame; the character talking, Angela, is once again centered.

Fig. 7: The camera moves further in on Angela, losing Lisa in the process.

Fig. 8: Rather than cutting in to Jérémie’s response, the shot is held and the camera tilts up to a medium close-up.

Fig. 9 is where things get interesting: Another 180° reverse cut moves us back to the framing of fig. 5. The difference is that Adrienne, who was almost completely blocked in fig. 5 is now visible in the background, brooding while peeling an apple.

Fig. 10: Reverse angle back on Jérémie, who is still defending his plan…

Fig. 11: … and back again to the framing of fig. 9 where Adrienne can still be seen brooding in the background (notice how faces are stacked along two diagonals).

Fig. 12: After the action moves momentarily to the kitchen, the camera tracks back to an approximation of the previous angle…

Fig. 13: … and reframes tightly on Adrienne, who by now is eating her apple. Notice how focus is racked from foreground to background.

Fig. 14: This is Adrienne’s moment to speak her mind, after we’ve heard from her two brothers, but while she does join in the conversation, the long-lens composition keeps her in the back of the frame.

Fig. 15: Finally she gets her (medium) close-up, but even then, she is partly obscured by a blurred Jérémie in the foreground (camera distance allowing him to pass).

As I discussed the scene with the students, all of them aspiring filmmakers, they were skeptical about my attributing the (thematically resonant) isolation of Adrienne throughout the scene as a result of a deliberate use of the long lens and camera distance, and carefully thought out staging and framing. For them this seemed no more than a lucky accident of shooting, an interpretation confirmed by Assayas’s insistence on improvisation and lack of preparation. As I said, the movie works hard to appear completely improvised. I still cling to the idea, however, that although in no way comparable to the pictorial nuance and deliberate figure movement in both Hou and Yang, Assayas here appears completely in control of his craft: while relying up to a certain extent on classical rules of continuity related to the centering of the important figure and reverse angle cutting on dialogue hooks, the most interesting part of the scene is the way he employs an underused (especially in contemporary commercial cinema) element of scene construction, namely cinematic staging.

When I asked him about his use of staging and about this scene in particular, he more or less adhered to his earlier statement: echoing Hou’s similar assertion that he doesn’t tell his actors what marks to hit, Assayas told us that he doesn’t block out the scene, but that he does shoot a lot of takes, which gives him a great number of alternatives during editing. The isolation of Adrienne was one framing among many that Assayas decided to use, and one Binoche, apparently, was none too pleased with (“This was her big scene,” her director explained, “her big moment of acting. She was furious that I used the take where she was framed from a distance and partly obscured.”). Assayas’s explanation got a big round of applause from the students, pleased to have their hypothesis confirmed and mine faulted. Still, it doesn’t make any difference to me that he did shoot a lot of coverage. The fact that the take with the aperture framing and the blocked and isolated figure was there to choose from in the first place, proves my point. If this is a case sheer luck, then, as David Bordwell says about Hou, such felicities amount to small miracles (See Bordwell’s analysis of Hou in Figures Traced in Light).

Assayas’s improvisational, sketch-like approach, that can be and has been compared to Rossellini’s Bazinian aesthetic of recording, arguably produced its most interesting movie with Carlos. At once a portrait of a man, left-wing freedom fighter cum gun for hire Illich Ramírez Sánchez (wonderfully played by Édgar Ramirez), and his times, the politically turbulent period of the late sixties and early seventies (also chronicled by Assayas in Après Mai and in the book-length essay, A Post-May Adolescence:Letter to Alice Debord), Carlos was a film Assayas ‘discovered’, as Rossellini would have it, without having any preconceived notions of how he was going to approach the abundance of dramatically rich episodes in Carlos’s picaresque life.

The project originally came to him on a much smaller scale, as a four-page synopsis dealing with Carlos’s arrest by French intelligence officers in Khartoum and subsequent trial. Assayas wasn’t very interested in telling a story that for him basically came down a “couple of guys in suits sitting in a room talking,” but became fascinated by the character of Carlos. After producer Daniel Leconte gave him a chronology of Carlos’s political career, Assayas decided he wanted to do the movie but only if he could stick closely to the factual details so as to be able to highlight the complexity of the geopolitical struggles that characterized the historical moment. For this he felt he needed at least two movies and probably three, a demand which, amazingly enough, was accepted by the project’s main backer, Canal+, as was Assayas additional provision that he wanted to shoot on the story’s real locations—taking his crew around the world from Paris to Germany to Hungary to Sudan and most of the Middle East—using actors and extras found on these locations and scripting the dialogue in their native languages (Canal+ eventually ended up with the short end of the stick, getting French broadcasting rights only for a movie its producers could now sell around the world). “When I approached the screenplay,” Assayas told Filmmaker Magazine, “the way I kind of structured it, the way I wrote it, was by using mostly documentary elements. It’s extremely factual…and it was completely different in its approach than anything I had done, or anything I knew of.”

Carlos (Olivier Assayas, 2010)

Assayas’s extreme attention to detail and the specifics of both location and situation is indeed what differentiates Carlos from a recent crop of movies similarly focusing on seventies terrorism, like The Baader Meinhof Complex (Uli Edel, 2008), Lovely Rita (Jessica Hausner, 2001), or Good Morning, Night (Marco Bellocchio, 2003). If we compare one of its most exciting set pieces, the hijacking of the Vienna OPEC summit, with an equally iconic moment from Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005), the Munich Massacre during the 1972 Summer Olympics captured in the movie’s spectacular opening scene, the differences in dramaturgy become immediately evident: although both movies interrelate historical TV footage with their dramatization of events, Spielberg’s fondness for classical story construction, employing contrast and parallelism through crosscutting, is completely alien to Assayas’s more contemporary idea to approach history not as a chronicler, after the facts, but as an embedded journalist, recording history as if it were happening now. What makes the OPEC set piece so exciting is the level of journalistic and forensic detail Assayas achieves in, for instance, the way the Viennese police, having forced their way into the occupied building, start firing in the wrong direction, the terrorist frontline having been assembled at a ninety-degree angle from the central entrance. This is a dramatic idea that is completely reliant on an insider’s knowledge of the operation’s lay-out. Where Spielberg, much as D.W. Griffith would, focuses on the moral consequences of the Munich Massacre, alternating Palestinian and Israeli reactions to the evolving body count, Assayas refuses to editorialize and zooms in on an almost verbatim reconstruction of the dialogue between Carlos and the Iran oil minister he was sent in to execute. While Assayas’s dramaturgic choices can be attributed to his cinephiliac knowledge of à clef political thrillers of the seventies that also present their fiction as lightly extrapolated from fact, All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976), The Mattei Affair (Francesco Rosi, 1972) and, primarily, Costa-Gavras’s State of Siege (1972), his professed dislike of retrospection and engagement with the present moment would lead us to look elsewhere for qualification of the statement that Carlos was “completely different in its approach…from anything I knew of.”

In the December 2010 edition of De Filmkrant, film critic Adrian Martin observes that “something intriguing happened in contemporary cinema” with the release of David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007). What happened was that “certain critics” picked up on Fincher’s “absolute fidelity to the meandering facts of this real-life investigation into the Zodiac killings—even though, ultimately, it results in no clear-cut, satisfying resolution.” Martin argues that Fincher’s film started a trend among “ambitious directors” for fact-based cinematic realism, which he sees incarnated in Fincher’s The Social Network (2010), Soderbergh’s two-part Che (2008), and Assayas’s Carlos. Martin bemoans this turn to a “low-key” realism “sticking, as far as possible, to the exact, wayward contours of the original events,” given that a whole generation of movie critics—himself included—spent the last thirty years decrying the illusion of realism in cinema and pointing out its ideological traps. The real trap, Martin argues, is that these filmmakers (and their supportive critics) seem to associate everything that is conventional and generic in cinema with artifice, thereby creating the false impression that by abandoning these conventions they can approach something like reality or at least a trace of it.

Kent Jones, a supporter of Fincher’s movies (and of Soderbergh and Assayas) and one of the critics targeted by Martin’s polemic, points out in his response that realism is conventional and fictional as much as other movie genres or idioms are, and that singling out cinematic realism for the ideological traps it supposedly sets is, frankly, ridiculous. What Fincher, Soderbergh and Assayas were betting on, Jones suggests, was less on any historical recording of the real than on exploring different forms of narrative construction, “incorporating the lulls and disappointments and setbacks and frustrations, amidst the peaks, turning points and climaxes of an actual police investigation or a series of actual terrorist operations.” Jones is right, in my opinion, to highlight the narrative experiment of Carlos, but fails to point out that as a narrative device, ‘realism’ is typical of the art film and has been so from the paradigm’s inception.

What unites Zodiac, Che and Carlos—their similarity of acknowledged, if not attributed to direct influence, by Assayas during the masterclass—in my view is less the ethics or aesthetics of realism, than an interest in narrative point of view, especially as it relates to distance and objectivity, and the generic construct of the procedural thriller. More specifically, such aesthetics can be labeled as what film historian Tom Gunning, in the totally different context of the working of specific kinds of early film comedy, has named the ‘operational aesthetic’. The term was first coined by cultural historian Neil Harris in his book Humbug, The Art of P.T. Barnum (1973) to describe popular interest in the way things work, in the way things are done. This same interest in procedure and mechanics can be seen as underlying the movies of Michael Mann who is equally keen on technical-forensic detail and, like Assayas, is interested in the idea of cinema presenting history in real-time (cf. his controversial Public Enemies). Fittingly, Harris uses the term not only to describe an interest in how things work, but in how fiction takes on the appearance of fact: “Barnum’s audiences found the encounter with potential frauds exciting. It was a form of intellectual exercise, stimulating even when literal truth could not be determined.” This ‘double consciousness’ is at the heart of the ‘New Realism’ that Martin has in mind and characterizes its contemporary relevance. I am keen to explore this further in a future blog.