INTERVIEW: Modernist, Post-Modernist, Traditionalist; Assayas Adds to his Repertoire with "Les Destinees"
by Matthew Ross
(indieWIRE/ 04.03.02) — Olivier Assayas was a well-known director in France for over a decade before his sixth feature, 1996’s “Irma Vep,” made him an international star. A freewheeling farce about the Paris film scene starring New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Leaud and Assayas’ future wife Maggie Cheung, “Irma Vep” was at once intellectually rigorous and painfully hip, bringing to mind the early work of Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. The familiar subject matter (relationships, Paris, long conversations, young intellectuals coming to terms with adulthood) and the decision to cast Leaud was not all Assayas had in common with the early New Wave — he also began his career as a critic for Cahiers du Cinema, the revered French film journal that served as the training ground for Godard, Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Claude Charbrol and Eric Rohmer, as well as more contemporary filmmakers like Leos Carax and Andre Techine.
Recently, Assayas has begun to explore new territory. On Friday, Wellspring Media will release “Les Destinees,” Assayas’ adaptation of Jacque Chardonne‘s novel “Les Destinees Sentimentales.” A period epic spanning the first three decades of the 20th century, the film stars Charles Berling (“Ridicule“), Emmanuelle Beart and Isabelle Huppert. Next up is the much-anticipated “Demonlover,” a sci-fi thriller set in Paris starring Chloe Sevigny and Gina Gershon. Currently in the last stages of post-production, the film should be finished in time for the Cannes Film Festival this May. Assayas spoke with indieWIRE senior editor Matthew Ross about “Les Destinees,” the creative process, and the ever-lamented “crisis” in French cinema.
indieWIRE: First, I’d like to talk about “Les Destinees.” It’s such a departure from your previous work, both in terms of both content and style. What inspired you to adapt this particular novel?
Olivier Assayas: This is really the toughest question because it goes so far back. I’m not even sure what the right answer is, but I know what gave me the first impulse. About 10 years ago, I just finished my third picture, and I felt the need to expand my view of the world. The only way I felt I could do that was to base my film on the work of a writer I admired. That’s when I read “Les Destinees,” and it made sense. It had a very cinematic structure, with beautiful dialogue. It was a very precise documentary description of the world, which I thought would be an exciting challenge to recreate on film. At the same time, I thought the actual story — how the world was changing socially and economically during that period — was very relevant to what was going on at the time. But I could not get the rights. Then, my producer got the rights but could not find the money. It’s been a long story. When I finally made the film, I’d been living with it for so long.
iW: In the time it took between first trying to go forward with the film and then finally making it, you made your three best-known films: “Cold Water,” “Irma Vep,” and “Late August, Early September.” How did your experience with those movies change your approach to “Les Destinees?”
Assayas: The change was very complex. What attracted me in the first place was to explore a world. It was enthusiasm and curiosity to do something new. But when I finally did the film, I realized that what interested me was that I had had totally absorbed the novel — it was alive within myself, and I did not have to recreate it.
iW: Despite the obvious differences between “Les Destinees” and your previous work, some of the emotional themes you’ve explored in the past are also present in this film. Did you approach the emotional content any differently because this was a period piece?
Assayas: On some strange level, it was easier to render emotions. When you write your material, you have more insecurities and doubts about your own writing than someone else’s writing. You come up with a scene or a character and you hope that you’re right, that you’ll be able to communicate effectively with your audience. But you don’t have this 100 percent security about it. When you read a novel and you react to it, you know it works. So at least you have the security of knowing that if it worked on you, it can work on someone else.
iW: Do you prepare the actors any differently for this film?
Assayas: I don’t rehearse with actors. I like the spontaneity. I spend time with actors to get acquainted with them, but I really believe in instinct, that actors should reinvent the scene instinctively. There is something that happens when you’re shooting the first take; something very simple can happen that you can’t get any other way.
iW: I know you must have been asked this questions countless of times before, I’d like to talk a bit about your background writing for Cahiers du Cinema. How do you feel your background as a critic informs your work as a filmmaker?
Assayas: To me, writing about movies was like film school. Some filmmakers learn filmmaking in school, some learn on sets. I learned the basics on sets, but I don’t think that on a set, you can learn the deeper aspects of filmmaking doing it that way. You learn the techniques, you can learn how something functions, but you can’t understand what films are really about. You can’t understand why you want to make movies, or what kind of movies you want to make. That was something I was lucky enough to understand by meeting filmmakers I admired and writing about them. It was very lucky, because during the time I was writing for Cahiers, there was a very interesting group of writers, specifically Serge Daney, the chief editor. I feel very privileged that I was able to learn filmmaking in that context with those people.
When I started making movies seriously, I realized that the kinds of questions I was asking when I was discussing somebody else’s work were the same questions I would ask myself as I made a film of my own. The practice of filmmaking has obviously taken me much further, but those formative steps were made during my time at Cahiers du Cinema.
iW: Creatively, how do you balance the awareness of cinema tradition and history that you developed as a critic with the more personal themes you’ve explored in your work?
Assayas: I think you start becoming a filmmaker when you start forgetting about the technique, form, and abstract ideas. I just felt it happening within me. When I was making my short films before starting at Cahiers, I had these theoretical ideas about how things should be done. At some point, when I started making my first feature, I realized that I didn’t care how this movie was made or what theoretical ideas were behind it. What I cared about was whether I could recreate my own emotions, what was specific about my own vision of the world. It’s something that’s essential in the process of becoming an artist. There’s this film that I’ve always admired: Ingmar Bergman‘s “Scenes From a Marriage.” The writing is so mind-blowingly good. He grasps things that most filmmakers would just dream of touching. He shot in 16mm, and he just doesn’t seem to care about how anything looked. I realized that the depth of the film lies in the looseness of the style. He was just concerned with expressing the rough emotions, nothing else.
iW: So many of the top New Wave directors, as well more contemporary filmmakers like Andre Techine and Leos Carax, have emerged from Cahiers. When you first started writing for Cahiers, was there any particular New Wave director you sought to emulate?
Assayas: The sincere answer is no. I have this great admiration for the work of Francois Truffaut. He was a great filmmaker, who is both immensely admired and slightly overlooked, even in France. I’ve admired Godard, Rivette, Chabrol, and Rohmer all on different levels, and for different reasons. The New Wave filmmakers I feel the closest to are Rohmer and Chabrol, but it depends on the days or the mood that I’m in. Aesthetically, I probably identify most with Godard. He has the freedom, the energy, the deep sense of liberty when he is making his movies that any filmmaker can relate to. Truffaut basically invented for himself a way to make movies. He’s someone who totally reshaped the whole perception of movies for his generation. I think there are aspects of the work of each of those five filmmakers that are meaningful to me.
iW: For the past few years, there’s been so much talk about the current “crisis” in French cinema. You’ve addressed this issue directly in “Irma Vep.” Do you think there really is a crisis?
Assayas: “Irma Vep” was very much about the situation as it was five years ago. I don’t think I would make the same movie the same way now. I always have trouble of relating to the notion of crisis. As far as I can remember there’s always been some kind of crisis in cinema. If there’s no crisis, that means that nothing is happening, which is worse. I don’t share this notion that some idea of filmmaking is fading away or disappearing. I think that movies are very alive today, alive is different ways, in different parts of the world, and for different reasons. I don’t feel like we’re in a period where movies are less important or less interesting. There are a lot of bad movies, there are a lot of average movies, there are a lot of average-interesting movies, and occasionally some very good movie. It’s always been like that. I don’t think it’s changed that much over the years. Also, there’s always been a limited audience for challenging films.
I think what’s changing the most right now is the system of financing, especially in France. I think it’s going to get gradually tougher to make independent films in France at the level of production people have become used to. It’s happening for incredibly bad reasons, which is that big industry has gained control of the cinema. Now, cinema in almost any country is in the hands of major industry or media groups who have totally abstract strategies for what movies they want to make. If there’s a problem today in cinema, it’s the strategies of those groups, the broad strategies of what cinema should be. These people don’t have the slightest notion of what movies are about.
iW: I don’t have too many details about your new film, “Demonlover.” But I know it’s a sci-fi thriller with American actors. Given all the commotion about the Hollywood aesthetic influencing current European cinema, do you anticipate a controversy?
Assayas: The film is violent and scary on different levels, and it’s very unlikely within the context of French cinema today. I can’t be sure of anything until I’ve screened it, but I think the reaction will be very much centered around the issues you brought up. It also has explicit sex and other elements that should bring up some censorship problems in the States, which is not something I’ve ever had to deal with. I know I’ll have to “adapt” some new versions in order to get it shown on TV. The film has some similarities with “Irma Vep” in that it’s playing with the concept of the internationalization of cinema. It uses American actors and actresses in an unexpected way; instead of French actors speaking English, there’s American actors speaking French. It’s mostly in French, with a lot of English and some Japanese. In many ways it’s an experimental movie on a big scale. I’m not sure how people will react to it, but I can’t wait.