Olivier Assayas

b. 25 January 1955, Paris, France.

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Olivier Assayas emerged as a filmmaker in France in the second half of the 1980s, after writing for Cahiers du cinéma between 1979 and 1985. This activity as a critic elicits an obvious parallel with the young turks in the 1950s, who all wrote film criticism for Cahiers as a training ground, with an eye to directing later. So did Assayas, who used these years to articulate personal ethical and aesthetic choices, also experimenting with his short films in the meantime. While he was too young to witness the advent and development of the nouvelle vague as it took place, and never considered himself a cinephile, (1) Assayas undoubtedly puts into practice a conception of cinema and of filmmaking that situates him in the lineage of François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer, but also of Alain Resnais and Agnès Varda. Economically, each of his films is tailored to allow him a large measure of creative control and make close collective work possible (even Les Destinées sentimentales [2000], to some degree, fits such a description, as we will later see). Conversely, the nature of a project determines its own economy, the associations between producers, the financial set-up, the envisioned distribution and exhibition network. As to the circle of his collaborators, it has remained remarkably stable since his debut: Denis Lenoir and Eric Gautier (cinematography), Luc Barnier (editing), William Flageollet (sound mixing), Françoise Clavel (costume design), and François-Renaud Labarthe (art direction/production design). Likewise, his casts have often featured recurring actors, in parts very different in substance and scope: Charles Berling, Virginie Ledoyen, Nathalie Richard, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Jeanne Balibar, and of course Maggie Cheung, not to mention the brief but always strong apparitions of countless familiar figures (Elli Medeiros, Alex Descas, Arsinée Khanjian, Smaïl Mekki), which from one film to the next suggest an open troupe.

The parallels with the nouvelle vague, however, are not limited to logistics. Narratively, Olivier Assayas has shown a predilection for the petits sujets, the little topics (in opposition to the large historical frescoes and the ambitions of 19th century novels to depict large sections of society over time), without however sharing Chabrol’s interest in the triviality of faits divers. His focus tends to be more on the intimate, apparently insignificant and unremarkable moments of everyday life, their humble materiality and physicality – and how they often lend visibility to moral dilemmas and equivocal feelings better than dialogue or, obviously, acting codes. Stylistically, Assayas’ fondness for brisk camera movement and rhythm in shooting scenes, his organisation of the set accordingly (in the choice of 360-degree lighting, for instance) are tied to a conscious aesthetic of the sketch, of the trace of a gesture, and cannot but evoke the balance between structure and improvisation also characteristic of the nouvelle vague.

These cinematic affinities could almost illustrate the revelation towards which numerous characters in Assayas’ films converge: as an individual, one cannot be accomplished until ties with a given, inherited situation (the family, or a community of identity) have been severed; and, in a very literal sense, until one has found who one is. (2) Indeed, Assayas was born into a cinematic milieu, but not in the same part of the spectrum of the nouvelle vague. His father, Jacques Rémy, wrote scenarios for Christian-Jaque, Henri Decoin and Claude Autant-Lara – all representatives of the 1950s “cinema of quality” which Truffaut later violently placated for primarily being a cinema of… scriptwriters, with directors content to apply illustrations on the words. Jacques Rémy (who had changed his real name, Rémy Assayas, to conceal his Jewish identity) came from a Thessaloniki family who had later resettled in Milan, Italy. An anti-Fascist activist, he became a French citizen after moving there in the 1930s, in the wake of Max Ophüls with whom he worked at the time. After emigrating to Argentina during the Second World War to escape the persecution of Jews under the Vichy regime and its collaborationist policy with the Nazis, Rémy Assayas returned to France in 1946. That same year, his future wife, Catherine Rémy, who came from an aristocratic background in Hungary, fled the country when the Communist government piloted by the USSR took over. Besides Olivier, the couple had another son, Michka, in 1958, who is now an established rock critic and novelist. (3) Rémy occasionally handed television assignments over to his older son, who thus learned some principles in writing fictional narratives for audiovisual media, whether related to the passage from word to image and sound, or to a more or less stringent verisimilitude. (4)

Yet, besides a couple of production assistantships after his graduation from high school, including one on Richard Donner’s Superman (1978), and despite his certainty that he would become a filmmaker, Assayas stayed clear of the profession of cinema during the bleak decade that saw the collapse of the ideals of 1968. Absorbed by painting, languishing in his French literature studies, feeling increasingly alienated from social and political organisations, Assayas caught sight of possible openings in his reading of Situationist texts and in the explosion of punk rock in Britain in the winter of 1976–1977. I will come back to the importance of Situationism and Guy Debord later; punk rock, with its disregard for training and skill and its emphasis on raw expression, may have had the immediate effect of demystifying the place of technical expertise in filmmaking for Assayas. After his stint on Superman he made his first short, Copyright (1979), with a camera borrowed from Marin Karmitz, a Left-wing activist filmmaker in the late 1960s and early 1970s who later went on to found MK2, one of the largest French production, distribution and exhibition companies today. (5) This brought him to the attention of Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana, then editors-in-chief of Cahiers du cinéma, as they were looking for young writers at the close of a politically and ideologically ebullient decade at the periodical.


While writing film reviews, research articles (he devoted a whole series to special effects) and interviewing for Cahiers, Assayas continued directing shorts. French pop musician Jacno had composed the music for Copyright, and its unexpected success led him to a second film, Rectangle: Deux chansons de Jacno (1980), a prototype of sorts for music videos which were soon going to proliferate in France and elsewhere. At the time, it was still called a promotional film, and largely free from the commonplaces that would plague the format later (images and rhythm reduced to the role of stimulants, the search for complete conformation between video and song, the intensification of a cult of personality around performers). In what is in effect a double bill, with one song and one instrumental piece, Assayas dissociates singer from musician, as if they belonged to separate universes. In the sung part, Elli Medeiros is shown near a river, by a sunken pontoon, at dusk, uttering words of dismay and rancour at an absent lover, looking straight as though to address the audience. It is not clear whether she is displaced from a proper setting (stage or diegetic space), or is a figure arising from the imagination of the musician (Jacno), shown through crosscutting. Another uncertainty relates to the relation of the images to the music: the insistent repetition of shots of Jacno playing bass and drums or adjusting the commands on his synthesiser, in tune with the pace of the shots on the instrumental part, ends up blurring the distinction between source and production. Is the music the result of the operations shown in the images, or are the images simply an attempt to humanise and give a body to a music that has been programmed and assembled? Rectangle, at any rate, gives a large degree of visibility to the (technological) tools that support and impact artistic expression as well as audience perception, a recurring preoccupation in Assayas’ films, particularly in Irma Vep (1996) and demonlover (2002). It also relies on music (and sound in general) as a site of passage between diegetic locations, narratives, and even fictions that otherwise remain undifferentiated visually.

Laissé inachevé à Tokyo

Assayas’ third short, Laissé inachevé à Tokyo (1982), shot in black-and-white with Elli Medeiros in the lead part, plays on a similar ambiguity as Rectangle. The film presents two novelists, one (Medeiros) returning from Japan with an adventure story she has not completed, the other (Laszlo Kovacs) in Japan, shown typing his next novel, and who apparently protected her during her stay and helped her fly back to France (she had become entangled in the theft of confidential documents and was kept captive, then chased by hoodlums after her escape). In the end, it is unclear whether the characters actually ever met each other, as each of them could have dreamed or thought out the story involving the other. Japan plays a rather cosmetic part in the film, and Assayas’ attraction towards Asian culture was still quite diffuse at that point. Two years later, he was the driving force (with Charles Tesson) behind a special double issue of Cahiers on Hong-Kong cinema that was to acquire mythical status among Francophone admirers of Asian cinema and of the golden age of Hong-Kong cinema. Incidentally, during the trip, he met Hou Hsiao-hsien in Taipei. In 1997, he would return to direct an episode of the documentary television series Cinéma, de notre temps (“Cinema, of our time”) on the Taiwainese filmmaker. To this he added the well-known collaboration with Maggie Cheung, in Irma Vep and Clean (2004); demonlover, which revolves around Japanese anime, the permanence of images in contemporary everyday life and the changes in (self-) perception it entails; and his latest Boarding Gate (2006), starring Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Michelle Yeoh, a thriller which takes place between London and Hong-Kong.

The place of Asian culture and Asian cinema in Assayas’ work revolves, to speak in broad terms, around two poles, kinetic and dramatic. On the one hand, the hypermodernity of the Asian metropolis, the permanent fluxes of text, image and sound data, as well as the financial volumes circulating through them, the pace of such circulation and the level of stimulation it attempts to keep up in regard to its inhabitants, permanent or transient, constitute the object of both a critique and a figurative inspiration in some of Assayas’ films – again, Irma Vep and demonlover epitomise such equivocality. On the other hand, Assayas, in part through his discovery of Hou’s work, has developed an interest in a dramaturgy that he sees as characteristically Chinese in tradition. In a 1999 interview in ArtForum, he described it as involving “a particular way of describing time, of describing the progression of action: you’ll have fragments of the same reality, and sometimes time is not moving.” (6) Irma Vep, Fin août, début septembre (Late August, Early September)(1998) and to some extent Clean rest on such a structure, placing at their centre either a marginal figure – a foreign actress, a sick man and an ex-convict, ex-drug addict, respectively, characters who fully exist but also elicit reactions from the people they come across and meet, revealing elements of their subjectivity that would otherwise remain imperceptible. In the second film, for instance, the disease afflicting Adrien (François Cluzet), a critically-respected writer albeit with a limited readership, and the prospect of his death, is apprehended in its reverberations, not only in how Adrien himself approaches writing and making a living as an artist, but also in how the friends around him deal with the consequences in their lives. Time certainly elapses (a year in fact, since the moments of the title are not consecutive but refer to two different years, a whole cycle), yet the exchanges between Adrien and Gabriel (Mathieu Amalric) or Jenny (Jeanne Balibar) are marked only through what separates them (“two months later”, “three months later”) and are not referred to specific dates. The film thus brings together the sense of passing, of change and a kaleidoscopic construction of its subjects.

This attraction for Asia, along with his interest in British and American rock music, makes Assayas’ work one of the most open to global exchanges and phenomena in contemporary French cinema. If the nouvelle vague filmmakers renewed the ways in which French was spoken in French films, Assayas has taken a further step by mixing in French with a number of other languages, often relying on English – as a second language, more rarely as a mother tongue – in his dialogues. Like Godard and the foreign accents and approximative French he relished in actresses such as Jean Seberg and Anna Karina (in part because they effected a defamiliarisation for the audience in regard to how people should speak French in films), Assayas has often sought to undermine the markers of national identity – particularly when they work to cover over the extent to which France is not immune to the international commerce of goods and services. The replacement of French by English in many scenes of Irma Vep and demonlover (either because the main character [Cheung] does not speak French or because English is the lingua franca in business transactions, carried out in English between French and Japanese executives) has an important symbolic weight in a country that has felt besieged, politically, economically and culturally in the last 15 years. This relativisation of France as a site among others in a world where the hierarchy of values is fast changing made Assayas’ venture in the genre of the heritage film initially surprising.

Assayas on location: Les Destinées sentimentales

Les Destinées sentimentales was the most expensive project of his career. This adaptation of a Jacques Chardonne novel he co-wrote with Jacques Fieschi over several years saw him assume the function of director in the Hollywood sense, for the first time: someone in charge not only of the creative project, of the translation of a text into images, but also a manager overseeing hundreds of employees, some of whom he’d never meet. The film tells of the love, over three decades, of Jean Barnery (Charles Berling), a Protestant preacher in the Southwest of France, also heir to a prestigious porcelain manufacturer, and Pauline Pommerel (Emmanuelle Béart), the niece of a brandy producer. Their relationship materialises only years after their first encounter: they marry and settle in Switzerland to improve his ailing health, but despite the quiet, fulfilling life they enjoy there, Jean decides to return to France to preside over the family business and throw himself into the battles of global capitalist competition, to the disappointment of Pauline who wanted “to consent to happiness”. The manner in which Assayas treats his subject sets the film aside from the literary adaptations or historical romances (one thinks of Cyrano de Bergerac, Germinal or Indochine, to name but a few) that strive to reconstruct a period of national history to turn it into a spectacle or a fantasy, as well as to add to the already existing cultural capital of its national public.

It is notable that, even in a narrative set at the turn of the 20th century, Assayas chooses to stress the degree to which the production of a fine liquor or that of porcelain sets is already dependent on orders from across the Atlantic and Japanese competition. Allusions to the opening and closing of warehouses overseas, the lower cost of labour in Asia, and the productivity of German workers run through the dialogue, reminders that the focus of the plot and what is visible in the film highly depends on what is not shown, on what lies behind and beyond the scenes. However, the film also articulates the contradiction between such a consumer-driven, cost-cutting logic, the aesthetic value of the object destined to be sold, and the research, the experimentation, the craft and, ultimately, the personal and collective commitment that go into its making. Upon a visit of Jean Barnery in the porcelain manufacture he is about to head, a series of shots present the various gestures involved in applying the enamel and firing the ceramic in clay pots. As new processes are invented, most notably the mixing of a bluish hue directly in the paste to give the porcelain a lighter aspect in the light, Assayas’ cinematographer Eric Gautier manages to capture and to render, dwelling several seconds on the end products, the hue being simultaneously described and discussed by the characters. Such attention, which suffuses objects that belong to the period in which the fiction takes place with a reality usually denied to mere props, points to the recreation of a tangible, past onscreen. The fact that costumes, locations, sets and objects serve, not as tokens or as the elements of a background limited to “signifying” a historical context, but as materials which actors have to live in, interact with, touch and use, gives a “thickness” and an immediacy, a presence that heritage films generally tend to deal with fleetingly. Assayas can also reverse, in his adaptation of Chardonne’s novel, the usual balance between events and characters: rather than presenting the latter as pawns moved around by sweeping historical movements, he opts to show minutely how these movements, far from being unfathomable forces, have from the points of view of the characters a certain familiarity – events on a human scale that pose dilemmas to them and raise social and political contradictions, but that they tackle in the realm of the quotidian.

This focus on a very specific, very anchored milieu (Protestant entrepreneurs in early 20th century Charente), and a couple of characters in their evolving intimacy, their quest for happiness despite the disapproval of the communities they have lived with, distinguishes Les Destinées sentimentales from the contribution to a national patrimony and the celebration (or more plainly, the memorialisation) of a common past that heritage films often perform. It also constitutes a new variation on a theme dear to Assayas, the affirmation of an individual consciousness, its gradual emancipation from an often fusional, established group. The theme prevailed from his first films on and gained in depth as the director’s interest shifted from the assertion of a principle to its translation in narrative, characterisation and, most of all, in the incarnation of the text by his actors. Désordre (1986) begins with Yvan (Wadeck Stanczak), Anne (Ann-Gisel Glass) and Henri (Lucas Belvaux), the members of a rock band, waiting in their car for the right moment to break into a music store and steal instruments. Anne kisses Henri and Yvan in turn; they then come out in the rain and rush to the building but the burglary goes amiss, as the owner surprises them. Trying to knock him unconscious, they end up killing him and will be haunted by their act, along with other members of the band who have guessed what has happened. The manslaughter is the event that precipitates the dissolution of the group, as each of them deals with his or her responsibility and desire to pursue music differently.


Assayas’ second feature, L’Enfant de l’hiver (Winters Child) (1989), also has as its beginning a dissolution, as Stéphane (Michel Feller), a struggling architect, suddenly leaves his pregnant girlfriend Natalia (Marie Matheron). At that stage Stéphane has been involved for a while in an on-and-off affair with Sabine (Clotilde de Bayser), a stage set designer tortured by her physical attraction for and affective dependency on an up-and-coming actor and manipulative seducer, Bruno (Jean-Philippe Ecoffey). In Désordre, the original community of the rock band is destroyed but such destruction makes possible the self-affirmation of two of its former members, Henri and Anne, and the eventual recognition that they love each other. For Yvan, the lead singer, past such harmony, suicide will appear as the only answer. In L’Enfant de l’hiver, the nuclear, heterosexual family to come explodes from the very first scenes and on very different terms, after their respective personal itineraries have been accomplished, that Natalia and Stéphane meet each other again at the end. After a suicide attempt, she has built a new life with another man who has become the legal guardian of their son, whom Stéphane can now see only on the condition of assuming the identity of an uncle. As to Sabine, unable to cut off her ties to Bruno (which he perversely attempts to maintain himself) so as to regain her autonomy, she shoots him to death.

Assayas’ suspicion towards identity groups or simply traditional social communities, with their urge to reproduce themselves and their resistance to dissident individuals in their midst, goes back to the aftermath of 1968 when, as a teenager, he witnessed the gradual closure or solidification of every idea and political option that had seemed to hold promise during the upsurge. He filmed a moment of that period of his life in L’Eau froide (Cold Water) (1994), a feature he developed from an episode commissioned for a public television series, Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge (“All the Boys and Girls of Their Age”), with other filmmakers also dealing with an episode of their youth and including (as a rule) music they listened to at the time. Shot in Super-16 and with much more creative freedom than his first films, L’Eau froide marked a point of reconciliation for Assayas between his life and his practice as a filmmaker, which in his own admission had been quite distinct until then. At the heart of the film is an open, shifting, happenstance community which exists only in one place and time and has no institutional foundations: that of the high school students gathering for a bonfire party in the ruins of a manor house in the countryside nearby Paris, with the music Assayas himself was listening to in 1972 playing. The film is in a sense (Assayas himself has suggested so much) a “second first film” in the career of its author in that it confirms new paradigms on at least three levels: the role of music in regard to the fiction, the creative method, and the articulation of fiction, figuration and politics.

Although Assayas occasionally commissioned original scores at the beginning of his career (Désordre draws much of its expressive power from the alternation between Gabriel Yared’s romantic compositions and rock and pop songs featured in the film, while Jorge Arriagada’s string pieces deepen the sombre mood that pervades L’Enfant de l’hiver), this practice gradually gave way to the use of pre-existing music, more often than not a part of his own personal experience as a youth. (7) There is not much of a dialectic in Assayas’ reliance on (mostly) rock songs or instrumentals in his fiction films: they are frequently diegetic, and when they happen not to be, he always strives for an organic unity between the two:

The reaction of images to the music is absolutely unpredictable. Sometimes you have what you believe is a self-evident intuition, and the film literally sends back your way the melody you had tried to associate it with. It is an irrevocable “no”, never motivated. Other times, the fusion happens instantly, the images suck in the music and fiercely appropriate it, so that it becomes impossible afterwards to dissociate them from it. It is as though they were not conscious of themselves beforehand and the melody had revealed their own identity to them. (8)

Irma Vep

This conception of the place of music and more generally of sound in his films has been supplemented by their use as passages between images, and sometimes more widely between the fictional levels they figure. A scene in Irma Vep epitomises this: Maggie Cheung is shown leaving René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud) after they discuss the future of their film and he falls asleep under the effect of the sedatives he has been given to treat his nervous breakdown. As she exits through the window (9) to escape the crowd of relatives and colleagues and leaves in her cab, the beginning of a Sonic Youth song is heard on the soundtrack, apparently extra-diegetically. It continues louder and louder until it completely occupies the soundtrack as we move into the next scene at Maggie’s hotel. Clad in Irma Vep’s outfit, she moves around her room feverishly; the handheld camera goes over her belongings and follows her movement. She soon walks out in the hall, and as the next shot shows her from the hall, the music is suddenly heard spatialised and we realise that it was in fact playing in her room. The intensity of the music, both on the soundtrack and for Maggie Cheung as a character, without going as far as to induce a trance, has helped her slip out of herself to reinvent herself as a thief, if only for an hour or two (she slips in a room and steals the jewels of another woman in her presence before going to the roof and throwing her catch in the rain, as if the gesture of dispensing with it was the only thing that mattered and gain was irrelevant).

In a symmetrical scene of the film, the soundtrack becomes completely silent as we gradually pass from watching the dailies of Vidal’s film full frame to a dark screen and, as the lights come back, to a shot of the cast and crew after the screening of what we assume to have been the dailies as well. In each case the soundtrack, through music or silence, performs a transition between two distinct realms, asking the question of their separation either from the point of view of the characters or from ours. This logic is pushed further with demonlover: Sonic Youth is again featured on the soundtrack, but this time it is an original composition, very abstract and almost completely devoid of melody, which blurs the boundaries between music and sounds, including diegetic ones. We are in part in a very artificial and ethereal universe of corporate offices and planes, in which sounds are purposely produced or conditioned to create an “atmosphere” as much as they are the outcome of human movements, frictions, speech. Using low frequencies and sound layers with little amplitude, the band’s compositions are often juxtaposed with moments of suspension and uncertainty for Karen de Monx (Connie Nielsen), a spy who has infiltrated an investment company to prevent it from selling exclusive rights over the contents of a major Japanese anime producer to an American distributor. Karen initially puts forth an appearance of neutrality and inscrutability, but her double identity is quickly unveiled by some colleagues (she does not know exactly whom). With the apparent co-operation of the American distributors, these colleagues set out to punish her, and she gradually loses her poise and her abilities to perform distant authority and power as she regains, forced by threatening circumstances, a sense of physical existence. It is often around shots that represent her in the act of looking (and attempting to understand information which her – visual – perception no longer suffices to collect) that the Sonic Youth soundscape is heard on the soundtrack, as if to accompany and emphasise at the same time the slippages taking place between hermeneutic frameworks as Karen confronts (as we do) increasingly complex realities.

If Assayas painted a great deal during his adolescence and early 20s and still worked with sketches in preparing his first feature, he increasingly thought of musical notions in the writing phase of his subsequent films:

I think of the succession of shots in terms of rhythmic structure, thinking to myself, “Here it’ll be a plan séquence, here a series of exchanged looks, here a system of shot/reverse shot, then another plan séquence again”, and so on. Such musicality also relies on [camera] movement, which is my way of accompanying the feelings, the emotions of the characters. This is what best describes what is taking place inside them, in my opinion. (10)

Spoken at the time Paris s’éveille (Paris Awakens) was released in 1991, these words find a provisional conclusion in Clean, which figures the itinerary of Emily (Maggie Cheung), a recovering drug addict and the widow of a rock musician whose suicide was blamed on her influence, as she comes out of jail and attempts to leave her old life behind to reunite with her son Jay (James Dennis). Her itinerary is also a musical one, as she struggles to get her own album in the works; the film concludes with the recording, her frail but persistent voice the manifestation of a second beginning.


The “narrative of the second chance” which Clean gives shape to is but the latest manifestation of Assayas’ interest in both allowing a degree of figurative and narrative uncertainty within his fictions and vesting a belief in the capacity of human beings to suspend existing ties (to family, community, nation, and more generally to a social and political order they can no longer sanction, from which they feel completely alienated) to gain a better sense of who they are, and perhaps form new associations on that basis. As I briefly hinted earlier, two events informed Assayas’ newfound hope in individual, small-scale action even within a hostile environment (for him, the ideological petrification and the exhaustion of revolutionary energy throughout 1970s France). The first was the explosion of punk rock in Great Britain in 1976 and 1977, with its all-out attack on mores, propriety, professionalism, including on what rock music was supposed to be, and its principle that no future was better than a preordained one. The second was Assayas’ reading of Situationist texts in anthologies as well as Guy Debord’s Oeuvres cinématographiques complètes in 1978. (11) The enterprise of demystification that Situationism proposed and set out to enact had as its incontrovertible premise a return to the real, a dismissal, as much as was foreseeable and conceivable, of the representations and discourses that incessantly functioned to keep it at bay, control it and shield individuals from it. At the centre of its guerrilla strategy was the performance of situations that could disrupt a naturalised order, retrospectively making it visible, and pave the way for a redefinition of it – an opening that more frontally concerned public spaces and cultural consumption. (12)

The conjunction of these two discoveries made the prospect of filmmaking more concrete, more palpable to Assayas, who had tried his hand at scriptwriting but had no technical training to speak of (no more than The Clash or the Sex Pistols had taken music lessons). The nerve of throwing oneself into filmmaking, however, could not alone respond to the questions raised by Situationism. In an art largely dependent on industrial structures, large-scale financing and mass distribution, and coming after Debord’s own oeuvre, it even seemed that any endeavour towards a fiction film could only be a step backward. Olivier Assayas has been well-aware of this, but has tried to answer it on two fronts, which may well constitute his most interesting contributions to an overall reflection on what a fiction film can be nowadays – more pointedly, though not exclusively, in a French context.

The first front is the shooting itself: Assayas recounts that on a winter evening of 1994, on his way to the set of L’Eau froide, seeing the two cranes that held the lighting equipment, dozens of teenagers dressed in 1970s gear trying to stay warm in the ruins until the shoot started, and the crew preparing the shots, the parallels with a happening, a situation came to his mind:

What if in cinema the genuine artistic gesture were not so much the completed result as the shooting itself? Aren’t most of the finished films beneath what has been lived, truly lived, while they were being made? Isn’t the challenge to approach, through a capture in images, the wonder of life as it was conjured up on the set, after all? […] Aren’t film shoots, considered from that perspective, situations to some degree? Do they not amount to conscious creations in the domain of daily life? (13)

The second front is the aggression on its audience: while his fiction films, like others, rely on figuration and diegetic continuity and provide a frame of reference on which a spectator can lean, and from which s/he can interpret any digressions and disruptions, Assayas has also on occasion borrowed Situationist forms and tactics to unsettle this comfortable relationship. In Irma Vep, the screening of the dailies already mentioned sets up an alternative audience, one that performs the same operation (viewing) as us and even watches the same images, but not for us, vicariously, from within the fiction. (14) Indeed, since what it watches is shown full frame and full track to us, that audience is not represented while we perform our own viewing. Later, as the crew meet for dinner, they distractedly watch a clip from the SLON-Medvedkine collective’s Classe de lutte (1969), which is soon cited full frame and full track by Assayas, for a few seconds. When we return to the fiction, the characters are shown finishing dinner, and the ellipsis strongly suggests how diegetic time and our own time as spectators are always irreconcilable, even when we are led to (consent to) believe the opposite. In other words, rather than encouraging identification with any one character, Assayas often opts for a slight distance, suggesting a reciprocal independence between the sphere of the fiction and that of its spectators, whose fundamental solitude can be consoled only by the act of thinking through their own relationship to fictionalised images and sounds. Any identification with the larger perspective constituted by the narration and the modes of representation of a given film is likewise destabilised by the heterogeneous images and sounds that Assayas edits together. Works such as Irma Vep and demonlover, for instance, also offer themselves as snapshots of a node of various “media contents” and serve as reminders that closures and coherences of all types in fiction films are always the result of deliberate choices. The unity of any fictional world only comes at the cost of the suppression of others that threaten to encroach on it (hence, the protected environment of the studio), and of concurrent interpretations of it.

As Clean came out, Olivier Assayas described his practice as a filmmaker as the injection of unpredictability into an accessible framework, and his position as a marginal one, but with the power to intervene regularly at the centre. With Boarding Gate, which appears to play with the codes of film noir and thriller across two continents, the French filmmaker explores once again the shifting domain situated between popular and experimental cinema. Shifting and uncertain, because it refuses equally to call upon a public already constituted around specific tastes and expectations and to bar the possibility that, after a solitary confrontation with the experience of the film, something may be shared after all.


  1. Ironically, Olivier Assayas now sits on the board of directors of the Cinémathèque Française, where he was elected to a six-year term in 2004.
  2. If individuals have a hand in shaping themselves, and if their identity is always acknowledged as a construction, there also exists a sense, palpable in the director’s interviews as well as in the trajectory of his characters, that an emancipated free form of ourselves already exists ahead of us, and that we may or may not decide to walk towards it.
  3. This biographical information owes much to Olivier Assayas’ epistolary account of his formative years, Une adolescence dans l’après-Mai. Lettre à Alice Debord, Cahiers du cinéma, Paris, 2005.
  4. Assayas worked on other filmmakers’ scripts until recently, including André Téchiné’s sadly underrated Alice et Martin, in 1998. It was also thanks to his first collaboration with Téchiné, on the box-office and critical success Rendez-vous (1985), that he was able to get his first feature film financed.
  5. Copyright is invisible today, mostly because Assayas considers it technically deficient and does not want it exhibited.
  6. Jones, Kristin, “Weight in Measure. French film director Olivier Assayas – interview”, Artforum , vol. 37, issue 10, summer 1999.
  7. Paris s’éveille stands apart, as John Cale composed the music for it.
  8. “Olivier Assayas: ‘La musique de Brian Eno pose des questions de cinéma’”,interview by Jean-Michel Frodon, Cahiers du cinéma , no. 593, September 2004, pp. 24–5 [my translation].
  9. It should be noted in passing that spaces and the way characters enter them are often tied, in Assayas’ films, to specific positions and desires in respect to their social sphere: in L’Enfant de l’hiver Sabine stealthily enters Bruno’s apartment by tiptoeing on the edge of the building to push his window open; Maggie Cheung, as mentioned above, leaves the crowd around René by slipping out the window, again. And in keeping with the Surrealists, who loved Feuillade’s serials such as Les Vampires for the masks, the disguises, the secret identities, the movements in and out of established bourgeois society (all of which were as many fictional passageways), Assayas has frequently given spaces in his cinema similar symbolic functions.
  10. Marie-Claude Loiselle, “Entretien avec Olivier Assayas”, 24 Images, no. 59, winter 1992, p. 54 [my translation].
  11. In 2005, Assayas assumed the editorial direction of the DVD set of Guy Debord’s complete works on film and made possible the theatrical re-release in France of these films on new prints.
  12. Assayas’ last short, Winston Tong en studio (1984), a documentary on the recording of his album by one of Tuxedo Moon’s front members, is but one indication of the filmmaker’s interest in performance artists – their twisting of the rules when it comes to performing live, their shying away from easily memorisable melodies, their displacement of music into locations not designed for it. Another is his latest documentary, Noise, which was shot with several friends at a rock festival in Saint-Brieuc (Western France) in 2005 and features artists programmed by Assayas across several concert venues on the same evening. Sonic Youth appear, of course, but the thread running through the performances is experimentation: instrumental pieces straddling the line between music and noise, as the title suggests, the emphasis on musical sensation more than on the lyrics, as words get stretched into unrecognisable syllables and become disfigured, torn off from language.
  13. Une adolescence dans l’après-Mai. Lettre à Alice Debord , p. 92 [my translation].
  14. Guy Debord had previously represented an audience similarly in In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978). The most important effects of such mirror images are that they give a figure to the oft-neglected notion that representations also watch us, thereby guiding us towards specific responses; and that they perform a dissociation between audience and fictional character, reasserting the primacy of the critical viewer over the addressee of identification. As to Assayas’ other direct reference to Situationism, via the movement from which it largely issued, Lettrism, it is of course in the scratching and drawing over the footage already shot that Vidal does at the end of Irma Vep, both to sabotage attempts to wrest the project from him and to obtain graphically on film what he thought he had failed to record during the shooting.

Olivier Assayas


As director

Copyright (1979) short

Rectangle: Deux chansons de Jacno (1980) short

Laissé inachevé à Tokyo (1982) short

Winston Tong en studio (1984) short

Désordre (1986)

L’Enfant de l’hiver (Winter’s Child) (1989)

Paris s’éveille (Paris Awakens) 1991)

Une Nouvelle vie (A New Life) (1993)

La Page blanche 1994) TV

L’Eau froide (Cold Water) (1994) longer version of La Page blanche designed for theatrical release

Irma Vep (1996)

HHH: Un portrait de Hou Hsiao Hsien (1997) documentary, TV series Cinéastes, de notre temps

Fin août, début septembre (Late August, Early September) (1998)

Les Destinées sentimentales (2000)

demonlover (2002)

Clean (2004)

(2005) documentary made for public television channel France 4 in Saint-Brieuc, France, during the 2005 edition of the festival ArtRock with the collaboration of Michael Almereyda, Gautier, Léo Hisntin, Laurent Perrin and Olivier Torrès

Paris, je t’aime (2006) portmanteau film; Assayas directed the segment on the 3rd arrondissement of Paris

Noise (2006) documentary

Boarding Gate (2007)

Summer Hours (2008)

Something in the Air (2012)

Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)

Personal Shopper (2016)

Non Fiction (2018) (post-production)

As scriptwriter

Olivier Assayas has written the scripts to all his films, including the adaptation and dialogues for Les Destinées sentimentales with Jacques Fieschi. Mentioned below are the films by other directors that he co-wrote.

Scopitone (Laurent Perrin, 1978) with Laurent Perrin

féline (Gérard Marx, 1978) with Gérard Marx and Dominique Lancelot

Passage secret (Laurent Perrin, 1984) screenplay and dialogues, with Laurent Perrin

Rendez-vous (André Téchiné, 1985) screenplay and dialogues, with André Téchiné

Le Lieu du crime (André Téchiné, 1986) with André Téchiné and Pascal Bonitzer

L’Unique (Jérôme Diamant-Berger, 1986) with Jérôme Diamant-Berger and Jean-Claude Carrière

Avril brisé (Liria Bégéja, 1987) with Liria Begeja and Vassilis Vassilikos, after a story by Ismaïl Kadaré

Alice et Martin (André Téchiné, 1998) screenplay and dialogues with Gilles Taurand and André Téchiné

Based on a True Story (Roman Polanksi, 2017) screenplay by both Assayas and Polanski

Select Bibliography

Olivier, Assayas and Stig Björkman, Conversations avec Ingmar Bergman, Cahiers du cinéma, Paris, 1990.

Olivier, Assayas, “Dans des circonstances éternelles du fond d’un naufrage”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 487, January 1995 [dedication to Guy Debord], pp. 46-49.

Olivier, Assayas, Eloge de Kenneth Anger: vraie et fausse magie au cinéma, Cahiers du cinéma, Paris, 1999.

Olivier Assayas, Une adolescence dans l’après-mai. Lettre à Alice Debord, Cahiers du cinéma, Paris, 2005.

Samra Bonvoisin, and Mary-Anne Brault, L’Aventure du premier film, Editions Bernard Barrault, Paris, 1989, pp. 10–21.

Steve Erickson, “Making a Connection between the Cinema, Politics and Real Life: An Interview with Olivier Assayas”, Cineaste, vol. 22, n. 4, March 1997.

Bruno Fornara and Angelo Signorelli, Olivier Assayas, Bergamo Film Meeting, Bergamo, 1995.

Kent Jones, “Tangled Up in Blue”, Film Comment, vol. 32, issue 1, January–February 1996.

Kristin Jones, “Weight in Measure. French film director Olivier Assayas – interview”, Artforum, vol. 37, issue 10, Summer 1999. Available at Looksmart

Olivier Kohn, “Olivier Assayas” [interview] in Michel Ciment and Noël Herpe (eds), Projections 9. French Film-makers on Film-making (in association with Positif), Faber and Faber, London, 1999, translated by Pierre Hodgson, pp. 132–37.

Charles Tesson, Claudine Paquot and Roger Garcia (eds), L’Asie à Hollywood , Cahiers du cinéma/Locarno: Festival International du Film de Locarno, Paris, 2001. [Round table with Olivier Assayas, Christophe Gans and Charles Tesson on the Asian New Wave, particularly in Hong Kong, its history and its prospects.]

Cahiers du cinéma, special hors-série double issue on Hong-Kong cinema, pp. 362–63, September 1984, includes many interviews and articles by Assayas.

Cahiers du cinéma, special hors-série issue on the New Wave, “Nouvelle Vague: une légende en question”, December 1998, pp. 70–75 [Round table on the influence and the legacy of the New Wave, with Olivier Assayas, Claire Denis, Cédric Kahn and Noémie Lvovsky.]

Web Resources

Film Directos – Articles on the Internet
Many online articles can be found here. Just scroll down.

Reverse Shot
The online film magazine Reverse Shot devoted a series of articles to Olivier Assayas, along with an interview of the filmmaker, in September–October 2003.

My Generation. Breaking the Sound Barrier: A Director’s Take on Movies, Music, Adolescence and Politics
Article by Olivier Assayas in The Village Voice, August 24, 2004 [translated by David Ng].

Olivier Assayas Power Games
An interview with David Thompson about demonlover.

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About The Author

Franck Le Gac is a PhD student in French Studies and Film Studies at the University of Iowa, and is completing a dissertation on citation in French fiction films from the New Wave to the present.

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