"Bringing Your Ghosts to Life" - Interview with Film Director Olivier Assayas

Olivier Assayas has spindly limbs, wears terrific T-shirts, and speaks softly and rapidly, with convulsive energy and a nervous stutter that suggests nothing so much as fleeting blockages in an otherwise steady deluge of ideas desperate to be liberated from his brain. He is 58 years old and one of the most youthful and prolific artists I have known. He grew up in Paris in the 1970s, in the wake of the preceding decade’s tumult, and was a painter and a critic before he made films. His youthful struggles to balance the dictates of the era’s radical leftist ideologies with those of his own artistic ambitions form the foundation for his latest film, the eloquent and ebullient, suffuse and semi-autobiographical Something in the Air. These struggles are also the subject of his memoir A Post-May Adolescence: Letter to Alice Debord, which was published in English translation last year by Wallflower Press. Assayas’ other films include Cold Water (1994), Irma Vep (1996), demonlover (2002), Clean (2004), Summer Hours (2008) and Carlos (2010). Our conversation took place amidst the creaking elegance of Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York Hotel and was lubricated by several glasses of Bordeaux.  – José Teodoro 

I. A MOMENT OF CHAOS

THE BELIEVER: Après mai and Something in the Air, the French and English titles of your new film, are very closely related in implied meaning and associations, but I confess that I think I prefer the latter. It emphasizes not just a particular zeitgeist or set of circumstances, but any zeitgeist, any circumstance. It’s resolute in the distance it takes from the ideological positions staked throughout the film. 

OLIVIER ASSAYAS: I’m fine with both. Après mai, for the French, really does convey a very similar notion, because it has to do with the aftermath of something, of dealing with the echo of something of which you had no firsthand experience. It has the same diffused notion of history and politics. I suggested Something in the Air because Après mai just does not translate into English. 

BLVR: Although the English title of your memoir, A Post-May Adolescence, has retained this idea.

ASSAYAS: Yes, I think the context of that book supported the idea more. And it’s easier for a book’s title to be allusive than it is for a film’s.

BLVR: And in the book you also have the opportunity to explain precisely what a post-May adolescence means. 

ASSAYAS: Yes, exactly.

BLVR: Regarding the ways in which Something in the Air and A Post-May Adolescence overlap, I’ve been thinking a lot about the patterns of artistic self-realization conveyed in both. Did you ever feel like the decision to become an artist was an inherent compromise to your political convictions?

ASSAYAS: If you were involved in the politics of that time, the early 1970s, and if you were involved in the hopes and ideas of that time, it was very difficult to accept the notion of any kind of work that might alienate. Nothing was acceptable if it did not have a direct relationship with the coming revolution, which was not a question mark, it was not a dream; it was a fact. The revolution was going to happen—so what are you going to do for it? You were not making art for the revolution. Art was petit bourgeois. Art was about individualism, which was anathema to the politics of the time. People were very serious about this. When Jean Eustache made La Maman et la putain it was denounced as petit bourgeois.

BLVR: Which in retrospect is ridiculous. 

ASSAYAS: Which in retrospect is demented! But anything that had to do with using the first-person was unacceptable. So when you had those aspirations as a very young man it was difficult to feel accepted or understood in the political context of the time. What does your petit bourgeois art mean to the working class? It was a very difficult question to answer.

BLVR: In A Post-May Adolescence you talk about visiting London in your youth. Given that you were a painter then, I wondered if you had encountered the work of John Berger and if he was any sort of influence on your feelings about art in the service of politics.

ASSAYAS: I didn’t read him. Though I knew his son, Jacob. 

BLVR: I ask because his Marxist readings of art history were something that made a big impact on me some years later.

ASSAYAS: The seventies was a moment of chaos, especially for people of my generation. I was 15 in 1970. It was extremely difficult to find your way, to harness the available ideas. Because you were living in the wake of events that you couldn’t fully grasp. You had two antagonistic sides of the same coin. There was the Marxist theology of the time, meaning kids who were organized in political groups, various strains of Trotskyism, eventually a tiny minority of anarchists, different types of Maoists: that’s one side of it. The other was all that had to do with the counterculture, the music, the drugs, the free press, et cetera.  And there was ultimately very little communication between those two groups. In France, the political side was the majority by a wide margin. 

The only accepted music in that atmosphere was free jazz. It was considered okay by Leftist standards—but not rock. There were Leftist rock and roll bands, but they were there largely to attract kids to the meetings or whatever. There was no real interest in the music. It was mostly despised, same with the free press, same with the drugs. The politicized kids would not touch drugs. They were considered an anti-revolutionary tool of the bourgeois state. The logic of all this would have been very clear to anyone who had been involved in May ’68 movement. But for kids in the seventies, you were attracted to both. You had to be involved in the politics, but simultaneously you would be listening to prog-rock, smoking joints, reading the free press or Zap Comix. These things were all elements of that present and offered a sense of rebellion against the bourgeois society. It was hard to understand why the two sides could not really come together.

BLVR: One of the things that defines adolescence is the ability to know when you’re really having fun. What you’re describing is a constant suspicion of any activity that might be construed as fun.  

ASSAYAS: Oh, no! No, it was definitely not okay to have fun. Fun was extremely suspicious. The notion of having fun implies that to some degree you accept the society you live in. And you couldn’t accept the present. The present was bad. It was like a religious was of thinking, a mystical notion of the future. Someday we will have a better world, a better society where finally you will be able to enjoy yourself.

BLVR: Yet having fun seems like an essential element in making art. In the book you describe your determination to become an artist as a way of—to use the English translation—“saving your own skin.” 

ASSAYAS: Yes, because when you practice an art you are on your own. Somehow it teaches you to think on your own. It teaches you to try things, to escape the hive-mind of your generation. It’s not a very pleasant situation in many ways. At that time being an artist would make your weird. Practicing an art is a drug. And I had that addiction. Art dragged me into some imaginary world, and in some ways this world saved me from the dead ends of the seventies’ ideologies. I did not go all the way in terms of politics, or mysticism or drugs, because I wanted to go all the way in terms of my art, whatever it was, and it was extremely naïve at the time.

II. A FILM SET IS LIKE A HAPPENING 

BLVR: To jump back to Something in the Air, I find it very interesting to track Gilles’ development as an artist. First we see him doing figurative work, later we see him doing abstract work, and then later still some combination of the two. And there’s this key moment in the film where a debate erupts regarding whether or not radical content requires radical form. I wonder if this is something that you’ve struggled with, or continue to struggle with, the question of what form is the right form for the art you want to make.

ASSAYAS: That question is more of a description of where I come from. You could not escape that discussion at that time. It was a key issue, and the answers were complex. Much of it boils down to similar questions about social realism. For the same reasons that the Soviets wound up suppressing modern art and abstraction, Leftism was suspicious of anything that was not understandable or that could disturb the working class sensibility. Ultimately the radical Leftists of the time had very classical tastes in art. They despised art in general, but they tolerated straightforward or figurative or documentary formats. They did not believe in fiction or formal radicalism. On the other hand, the history of modern art in France is connected to formalism, to abstraction.

Something in the Air is similar to Irma Vep in that I’m trying to show the conflicting theories of what art is about. It’s way to express how when you were taken into the turmoil of those years you defined yourself in terms of those options. And my option has always been, in one way or another, figuration, representation. I’ve always thought about it in terms similar to those of Balthus or Lucien Freud, who chose the path of representing human beings instead of using just form and colour, who believed that there was a modern path that included figuration and narration, that figuration and narration were not petit bourgeois in themselves, that representing nature, representing mankind, representing the world as it is was not inherently petit bourgeois. Maybe these elements have something to do with the very nature of cinema.

Maybe fiction is no less documentary than documentary, in terms of dealing with the dreams of your time. I ended up coming up with my own answers, but those were the questions. And they do stay with me. Whatever I’m doing I try to define it by answering all of those questions.

BLVR: I’m interested in your choice to write A Post-May Adolescence as a letter. Did this form allow you to apply certain useful constraints, to contain what might otherwise be too open-ended a subject? There are moments, for example, where you note that you don’t want to digress too much about the music you were listening to at the time.

ASSAYAS: Yes. Yes to all of that. Because this is not exactly an autobiography. It was a more an attempt to reconcile my fascination with the writings of Debord and the practice of an art. I never really felt a deep connection with the politics of the time. I was never a Maoist, never a Trotskyite. When I was very young I was drawn to different forms of anarchism. But my ideas only really took shape in connection to the writings of Debord and eventually to the Frankfurt school. Those were the writers that structured my politics and view of modern society. Yet everything Debord wrote was about the destruction of art. Everything Debord wrote concluded that art was impossible in this age. Debord despised any form of artistic practice.

To become a filmmaker, to take that giant step to make my first short film, I had to accept that I felt a little schizophrenic about all of this. What I believed in, deeply, in terms of my politics, should have made it impossible to make films. Then I made my first short film and realized that it was not alienating. There was a path towards cinema, towards art, on which you could work along with a crew, within a team, and create something that was not alienating. This was a discovery. I then had to try to make sense as to why I found in cinema something that gave me a satisfaction that work in itself could never give me. And why it was not a total contradiction of my readings of Debord. I needed to understand why I had always stayed in touch with Debord’s theories and felt no conflict between this and my practice as an artist. I started writing this book to answer this question. I did not know the answer. It seemed possible that there was no answer. And in the end I got to what is maybe the beginning of an answer. 

BLVR: And directing this question to Debord’s widow was the most appropriate way to focus those thoughts?

ASSAYAS: Yes, because I had just met Alice at that point. We had become friends, and somehow I felt obliged to try to make sense of this stuff. If only for her, within the terms of our relationship. This is also why later I became involved in reviving the films of Debord. That was a lot of work. It was extremely complicated. I had to sort out an enormous number of contractual and practical problems. But I did it all out of admiration for Debord and also for Alice. 

BLVR: You mention in the book that you would have loved to recreate something like Andy Warhol’s Factory had you the sort of character that lent itself to such an enterprise. But, of course, managing a film set—especially on a film like Something in the Air, where you have all these great party scenes that seem to always be spilling out of the frame—feels not entirely dissimilar to facilitating that kind of situation.

ASSAYAS: You’re right. A film set is like a happening. The film set is a work of art in itself. To feel this formidable energy, with everyone focused on something, on creating an illusion. There’s a beauty in that. And everybody shares that experience. A film set is a more intense form of everyday life. Even guys who are there to do what seems like the smallest job, they feel part of something bigger, something worthwhile, in a way that very few things in modern society offer you. You are disconnected from reality. You create a bubble of complete freedom, a bubble in which people all work together to create something they believe in.  This is why I dislike the industry so much, because it turns this utopia of the film set into a factory. Which is something I try to represent in Something in the Air(laughs) It’s a token of my love for the film industry, as represented by Nazis. But the metaphysical difference between independent filmmaking and industrial filmmaking is exactly this: on an independent film you protect this utopia.

BLVR: Right. And some directors can protect that utopia on a large scale and some can’t. I always liked the metaphor that Robert Altman used of building a sandcastle with his collaborators and then watching it all get washed away.

ASSAYAS: Absolutely. Robert Altman was a great, great filmmaker. I’ve been rediscovering his work recently.

BLVR: I’m a huge fan of 3 Women especially. 

ASSAYAS: I like 3 Women and basically everything he did in the seventies. Thieves Like Us, California Split, Nashville, McCabe & Mrs. Miller. I hadn’t watched that stuff for ages and when I returned to this work I just couldn’t believe it. Everything from that period, taken altogether, is a huge achievement.

III. GETTING RID OF THE PAST 

BLVR: There are several moments in Something in the Air where art is treated as something disposable. Paintings and drawings get ripped up or thrown away, poetry gets burned. Is this something that gets easier to come to terms with as an older artist, this idea that art just comes and goes?

ASSAYAS: Yes, but it’s also to do with the fact that the seventies were not concerned with money. Anything material was despised.  Art was practiced for the beauty of it. Anything successful was suspicious. Especially movies. It took me a while to come to terms with the notion that there could be anything good about a movie being successful. Anything recognized by the majority was suspicious. That was the spirit of the times. So there was this auxiliary feeling that art was gratuitous, that it was created out of hope, love, faith. It doesn’t matter. It’s ephemeral.

BLVR: As I watched Something in the Air I thought about two other films in particular. I think this film is such an interesting companion piece to Carlos, and the reasons for that are largely self-evident. But on the other hand, and more interestingly, for me at least, is the fact that your film feels to me like a sort of prequel to Le Diable probablement.

ASSAYAS: Well, I’m certainly not going to contradict you there. I feel that Le Diable probablement is the best film about the 1970s. I think Bresson did it too late for it to be properly recognized. He should have done it three years earlier. I could not watch Le Diable probablement when it was released because it showed exactly what I did not want to see of myself. In 1977 I was into punk rock and getting rid of the past. I just didn’t want to look back. Le Diable probablement captures that seventies like no other movie. I certainly hope this new film has echoes of Le Diable probablement. The character of Gilles, when he grows up, will probably become closer to the character of Antoine Monnier in Bresson’s film.

BLVR: I was very charmed by the way you chose to end Something in the Air, with Gilles working on this ridiculous-looking movie in London. We’ve talked about the hugely ambitious but ephemeral nature of everything that Gilles was involved in throughout the story, and there’s something very irreverent about leaving Gilles in this place, working on something that’s comically insignificant. We know that he’ll likely move on to live an interesting life.

ASSAYAS: He works in this movie factory, making a film from another era. Which was my experience, actually. I worked similar jobs on similar films at the time. But he sells the free press in front of the consulates and he watches experimental films. He witnesses the resurrection of Laure in an experimental film. And all of a sudden he understands what art is about, what cinema is about. Cinema is about resurrection. Cinema is about dealing with your own ghosts and bringing them to life. Cinema can explore your subconscious and your memories, but mostly it allows what is lost to come back. This is really where the path starts for Gilles. Finally, he has arrived at the point where he understands why he wants to make films. And to me it’s a way of making sense of his whole journey.

BLVR: I appreciate the relatively breezy delivery of that last gesture. It’s in keeping with the lack of emphasis throughout Something in the Air, the absence of those moments designed to tell us what the film’s thesis is. Scenes just seem to tumble forth, and it’s only through their accumulation that we sense their forward movement. 

ASSAYAS: I’m glad you say that, because I did not want this film to have any built-in artificial narrative.  I wanted it to have moments that were as true as possible to the times and bet that somehow by connecting them, juxtaposing them, letting them echo within one another, we could make sense of the whole puzzle. Many elements in this film are elements I’ve used in previous films, but I’d used them in the context of more classical narratives. This is a very different type of narrative. I just wanted to put everything on the same level, to not exaggerate anything, and just trust reality, trust fleeting moments. I didn’t want to be sentimental about it. I didn’t want to be emotional about it. It has to come by itself.

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José Teodoro is a critic and playwright and is the co-author, with Mexican photographer Laura Barrón, of a 3-meter-long bilingual book of text and images entitled Cathedral. He lives in Toronto.