With “Something in the Air,” French director Olivier Assayas (“Carlos,” “Summer Hours,” “Irma Vep,” “Cold Water”) turned in his most autobiographical work to date. A coming-of-age tale set against a backdrop of radical student politics, sex and drugs in 1970s France, we reviewed the film out of Venice and then caught up with the director at NYFF to talk about it. All of which meant when we recently got to meet him again, at the Göteborg International Film Festival, we could afford the luxury of letting the conversation range off-topic from the revolutionary politics of the film’s era to the idea of storytelling in film as an act of rebellion, to the problems in film criticism (Assayas himself wrote for Cahiers du Cinema) and even briefly to the Beatles vs the Stones.
Like your protagonist, you were a teenager in the early 1970s. How much do you feel that the non-conformity of the time was actually part of a desire to be accepted by your peers, in a sense to conform?
Well, yes, in the early '70s in France being a leftist was part of being pretty much in conformity with what was expected. But then you could be involved more or less…
The thing that everybody shared, not as ideology but as fact, was that [the protests and strikes of] May ‘68 had happened, not long before, meaning there had been something that came close to being a revolution, which was at the time not seen as the high point of the era, it was perceived as the beginning of the era, and much bigger things were to come. There was this common perception of that something was coming, and you wanted to part of it — it would have been absurd not to be a part of it.
Then either you could be in the mild politics of it — "it’s a wake up call for change and reform" — some kids who were influenced by their parents or whatever had that kind of take on it. You had leftists who thought “next time it will succeed because now we’re building the plan.” And then you had the wild kids who were just into the anarchy of it, and who were into rebellion in general, and I was closer to those kids….arguments [between these factions] would be happening non-stop, so there was a sense of questioning the conformity of leftism.
Tell us a little about the female characters in the film: they seem to somewhat represent some of these different aspects of the culture of the time.
The girls in the film are very much taken from real life. The character of Christine is painfully real. I really based her entirely on one character who was my girlfriend at the time — down to the smallest anecdotes really. Then of course the character of Laure, she is this kind of archetypal '70s cool, stoned, crazy girl which was the other feminine image of the time. And inspired by another close friend. But to me it was really the two archetypal models.
They’re very much seen through Gilles’ eyes…
Oh yes, completely. Although in the case of Christine, I really emphasized at a specific moment how much leftism was macho, which was a sad fact, and girls often basically were shopping and cooking and tending to the material needs of their politically informed boyfriends. So I kind of underlined that aspect also, which is really what modern feminism came out of.
The film felt drenched in memory to me. What was the role of memory in the writing of the film?
I started with memory, I started to reconstruct elements. But the movie took shape and really happened when I got rid of memory. I realised I had to accumulate elements taken from memory and at some point it has to become fiction. Memory is tiny weird things that only you value — sometimes we forget about the big things. I tried to patch together very specific memories, solid factual memories of this and that so I had something I could build on. And then I reshuffled everything, so those elements are there but they are differently organised.
How different is that from your usual writing practise on non-autobiographical films?
It depends on the movie. For example, the movie I will be shooting in the spring started with one character and an image. And somehow I had no idea of how they connected, but the whole process of writing was just understanding why they connected so strongly in my imagination, which I ended up making sense of, in a certain way.
That film is “Since Maria” starring Juliette Binoche?
Yes, we will shoot it in English and we’ll be filming mostly in Switzerland and Germany. It’s a contemporary story and there will be an American and German cast.
And how about the “Summer Hours” remake that Tom Hanks was supposedly mounting? What do you think of that idea?
Oof, [laughs] I heard about that at some point and it faded. Once in a while it resurfaces but at this point I haven’t heard about it for a while. If I don’t have to watch it I’m fine!
How do you feel about Hollywood cinema in general these days?
To me what is happening now in the U.S. is ultimately the big franchise movies, they are closer to animation than to actual cinema, to me there is an increasing gap between movies that involve special effects and movies that involve actual individuals that you are filming in real light. It’s major. And I do respect some of the visuals and the inspiration of big Hollywood movies, but it’s becoming two completely different art forms — it involves completely different skills and completely different knowledge.
What I love about movies is the possiblity to capture reality. I don’t believe in enhanced reality, I don’t believe in tampering with reality because if you start touching special effects you end up thinking that, for instance, this view through the window, it’s not good enough. Why can’t the sky be blue? We are in Sweden, it’s winter, why not have a little snow falling, it would be cute? And it becomes conventional, it becomes some sort of archetypal vision of the world.
I’m really happy to be filming someone and in the background have something that feels real — I don’t want to control it. I’m interested in the way it is, as it is: random.
In the film Gilles moves into film via painting, as you did. How did that progression from a representative to a storytelling medium occur?
Well, I started making movies in a context where really the radical move was to tell stories. It was the end of the 1970s, early 1980s and gradually the notion was coming back to cinema that it was ok to tell stories, that you didn’t have to make a second-hand Godardian movie. All of the independent filmmaking of the time was really about abstraction, about Brechtian distancing — I’m not talking about the mainstream industry that was always producing narrative films, which felt very dull and old-fashioned. If you were in the independent film scene you made abstract films.
To me that system had gone full circle and I started making movies on the assumption that there was a possibility of some kind of figuration, of neo-figuration, where within the framework of independent filmmaking you could make again character-centered actor-driven movies that actually told stories, that looked at the world in a straightforward way. But that was going against the current then.
Who were your early influences then, if not Godard?
Ultimately I think that the filmmaker who influenced me the most in that respect was Bergman — it was a mixture of Francois Truffaut and Bergman which made me understand the space where I felt I could make movies… At the time [Truffaut and Godard] was like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, you were either one or the other, and Truffaut was considered less radical than Godard. To me Truffaut is a genius, one of the great filmmakers of all time and there’s no contradiction between loving Truffaut and Godard, as much as there is no contradiction between loving the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The early Rolling Stones.
As an erstwhile film critic yourself, is it possible to turn your critical, analyst’s eye onto your own career and work?
I can’t think in those terms. That’s where the movie critic has to be a little bit of a psychoanalyst, that he will end up seeing things that are very obvious but that the patient is blind to! I don’t think of my movies in thematic terms. To be as honest as I can, I see my movies as a whole. Sometimes I will be on the set, and I work always more or less with the same crew, and if I sat down and closed my eyes, I could be on any set of any of my movies any time, with that sense I’ve only ever been making one film since I started; it’s all just fragments of one experience.
So there is a value to film criticism?
I think there has to be a dialogue. The problem is there’s two different things — one thing is film criticism; the other thing is film theory. And film criticism, sometimes it’s useful, sometimes it’s not. But the problem is that today film theory has become academic, in the literal sense, it’s been absorbed by academia. In my book, it’s not film theory any more, it’s film ideology — it's stiff it’s dead, it’s dogmatic, it deals with the cinema of the past. Whereas theory should be informed by practice. And now the whole trend of criticism is about giving points… this is a 5.4, this is a 6.7 or two smileys or zero smileys, to me it’s horrible, really horrible, it’s such a disturbing approach to cinema.
"Something In The Air" will open later this year via IFC Films.