Why You Need to Be Watching the Amazing but Overlooked Films of Oliver Assayas

In his seminal text The Society of the Spectacle, the French provocateur Guy Debord writes that, “in a world that has really been turned upside down, the true is a moment of the false.” French director Olivier Assayas, an avowed devotee of Debord, believes in this understanding of the world. His attempts to peel back the superficial and convenient to reveal a brief moment of the genuine have come to define his career.

But while Debord’s own filmmaking attempts are avant-garde (with names like On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Unity of Time) and inaccessible by design, Assayas’s are marked by a blend of art film interests and genre film aesthetics. His films feature coherent (even compelling) plots, international casts, and, often, liberal helpings of sex and violence. With this unique blend of gonzo cinema and theoretical underpinnings, Assayas has managed to build one of the most original, and interesting bodies of work in contemporary cinema. And yet, while his films have found a following among certain American niche, they largely remain overlooked and underseen by most audiences.

The son of the French screenwriter Jacques Rémy, Assayas got his start directing short films and writing for the influential Cahiers du Cinéma—the same magazine that fostered the vision of directors like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. He made his feature debut with 1986’s Disorder, but it wasn’t until his 1996 film Irma Vep that Assayas really arrived on the international scene. Looking back, his pre- Vep films were decidedly formative works—straightforward dramas mostly hampered by a lack of ambition and lack of a clear voice. But In Irma Vep, Assayas finally struck a balance between theory and practice, delivering the first uniquely Assayas movie.

In the film, the Hong Kong actresses Maggie Cheung plays a version of herself who has been cast in a remake of the classic French film serial, Les Vampires. The production is riddled with chaos and miscommunication. Defined by Cheung’s difficulty communicating with the cast and crew, the film is about disorientation, and it can be a bit disorienting itself. After all, it features interspersed film-within-the-film scenes and seemingly-unrelated archival footage. But underneath its roving camera and dialogues about contemporary French cinema, Assayas’s core themes reveal themselves: globalization, the convergence and collision of cultures, and France’s place in the world. Funny and engaging, the film still serves a benchmark of Assayas’s growing maturity as an artist, and like much of his work that would come after, it is both accessible and highly substantive. In fact, it remains one of his biggest hits (relatively speaking).

Over the course of the next 14 years, Assayas released a number of underloved films, including 2002’s Demonlover and 2008’s Boarding Gate, both of which continue Assayas’s interest in cultural borders, as well as the relationship between politics, violence, and images. But these films lacked Irma Vep‘s prestige. Instead, they were seen as vulgar B-movies. During this period, Assayas also released some more-or-less straightforward films, like Summer Hours. But while there are some real gems in this stretch, none of them made much of a splash upon release. It wasn’t until 2010’s epic (in both length and scope) Carlos that Assayas’s vision was finally legitimized by his peers. The five-and-a-half hour long film follows the life of the Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal, and it takes its audience to France, England, Holland, Jordan, the Sudan.

Kristen Stewart and Olivier Assayas on the set of Personal Shopper. Courtesy of IFC Films

A deeply cosmopolitan film, Carlos is enamored with Europe, with cities, and with the cultural mosaic those cities represent. Its philosophical dialogues and globetrotting is reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh’s Che, but while Che is alternatively lush and sleek, Carlos is grimy and dirty and painful for its characters and its audiences. Most of Assayas’s previous films—whether they were the gonzo ones or the lush provincial dramas—remained largely overlooked because for most audience members they were (rightly or wrongly) inaccessible. Carlos removes most of those hurdles, and, in many ways, it is Assayas’s most mainstream film. It’s thrilling and fun and grounded by terrific performances. And yet, with a massive running time and no bankable stars, it remained off most viewers’ radars. Critics, however, recognized Carlos‘s quality, and the film was rightfully rewarded with two Golden Globe nominations, though it was ineligible for an Academy Award.

Since then, Assayas has once again retreated to more intimate, though no less passionate, affairs. He first released the minor Something in the Air. Then he followed that up with the Kristen Stewart-starring The Clouds of Sils Maria, a complex relationship drama about art, aging, identity, and how they all interweave in this age of global cultural rot. Like a number of his less generic post- Irma Vep films, The Clouds of Sils Maria was welcomed by high praise from critics, but it still remains underseen and under-discussed. (Though, it did score a spot in the prestigious Criterion Collection.)

A similar fate most likely awaits his latest film, Personal Shopper, which opens this week. In typical Assayas fashion, Kristen Stewart plays the titular role of a personal shopper. At once, she both exists at the highest peak of capitalist excess and alienation and also at its margins. Stewart also moonlights as a spiritual medium, attempting to communicate with her deceased twin brother—her double, her mirror—a her that exists elsewhere, outside of her material confines. Like Sils Maria, it blends the arthouse and the grindhouse in the peculiar way that only Assayas can: sleek and stylish, but not lacking in genre trappings or heady commentary. This is Assayas’s schtick, and while appreciated by some, it doesn’t seem to be finding a mainstream audience. But Assayas doesn’t seem to care, and that’s probably for the best.

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