Atmosphere and an actress

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Olivier Assayas’s films are both strange and engrossing, so much so that they may evade broad comprehension on the first go-round. Whereas instigating French new wave directors like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut played fast and loose with tone and narrative structure to create jarring juxtapositions, Assayas does so to effect a subtler, more mysterious sense of illumination. We frequently lose our bearings in cinema Assayas — as in two poetic refractions of the same scene in Irma Vep (1996) and Demonlover (2002): the female lead donning an alter ego, scurrying through hallways, committing a crime in a space that seems to overlap reality, dream, and fantasy — but there is always an underlying trust in the director’s guiding hand, earned by his hyperkinetic narration and apparent devotion to his actors. Assayas’s résumé does indeed resemble the archetypal new wave trajectory (from Cahiers du Cinéma critic to what Manny Farber calls a termite filmmaker), but the connection runs deeper still: like his forebears, he makes films about what it means to live in the modern world.

It’s a world that invariably entails the restless confusion and complex social systems of the globalized marketplace. He arrives in this slipstream through any number of inputs. For starters, his films are multilingual, multilocation affairs (in this respect they resemble spy thrillers, though it’s only Assayas’s most recent film, Boarding Gate, that feels pointedly designed along genre lines). Second, his plots usually revolve around business people. Even in Les Destinées (2000), an intimate fin de siècle period piece, a lapsed minister struggles for "new methods and new machines" to capture the American market for porcelain. This concern for France’s mediated role in global trade — it supplies luxury items in Les Destinées, film production in Irma Vep, and Internet pornography in Demonlover — is a constant in Assayas’s work, as are characters who are swallowed whole by an abstract marketplace. In Irma Vep, the film that still seems like Assayas’s most intuitive work, it’s a film director (played by new wave favorite Jean-Pierre Léaud) who succumbs to the impossibilities of postmodern enterprise, in this case remaking a French classic (Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires) with an actress from Hong Kong (Maggie Cheung).

Film Comment critic Amy Taubin is right to point out that Boarding Gate is "closer to Feuillade than [Assayas’s] Irma Vep," though it seems to me that this is as much a matter of the film’s riveting embodiment of Feuillade’s metaphor of society as so many trapdoors and secret passageways as it is "because [Boarding Gate‘s Asia] Argento is a contemporary Musidora [the star of Les Vampires]." Feuillade confined his lucid vision to the backstreets of Paris, whereas Assayas snaps between the City of Light and Hong Kong. More disconcertingly, he evokes virtual realities as well. In Irma Vep and Demonlover, alter egos take on a confusing, extrareal presence befitting the Internet age. Compulsively drawn to modern, floating spaces, Assayas frequently sets his action in glassy airports and offices. In this respect, the director’s use of Brian Eno’s ambient music, in Boarding Gate, seemed a long time coming, though Sonic Youth’s harmonics had previously supplied the same glide to Irma Vep and Demonlover.

Of course, all of these touches are only so much window dressing for Assayas’s mesmerizing female leads. Godard’s dictum that cinema is a matter of "a girl and a gun" falls short with Assayas: for this director it takes atmosphere and an actress. Irma Vep, Demonlover, and Boarding Gate all abide by the "a woman in trouble" scheme espoused by David Lynch, but with cleaner lines and punchier scrambles. Is there any doubt that Irma Vep conveys the plight of an actress lost in the marketplace with greater grace and acuity than Lynch’s slogging Inland Empire (2006)?

Because really, cinema Assayas could hardly be called glum or even despairing in spite of its heavy themes. Indeed, some of the filmmaker’s champions were upset with Demonlover for crossing that line into David Cronenberg country (the film is being screened at the PFA with the Canadian director’s 1983 Videodrome), but in Irma Vep and Cold Water (1994) it’s striking just how light Assayas’s touch remains even when he broaches oceans of malaise. Some of this, of course, is simply a matter of finely honed cinematic storytelling: fluid editing, detailed soundscapes, and restless handheld-camera work all give his films a stylishness that seems miles away from Dogma austerity.

Despite lacking the dreamlike depths of Irma Vep and Demonlover and the closely observed social mores of Les Destinées and Cold Water, Boarding Gate might just be the smoothest machine Assayas has built yet. The film’s minimalist, on-the-run scenario allows the director to intensify his stylistic template — the cutting has never been more electric, the natural light never so beautifully pale. And to return to Taubin’s point, Argento may well be the perfect Assayas heroine for all of her different looks — in Boarding Gate she’s alternately terrifying and terrified, spasmodic and inert, in control and at a loss. Unlike so many damsels in distress, she’s essentially active — as is cinema Assayas.

OLIVIER ASSAYAS IN RESIDENCE: CAHIERS DU CINÉMA WEEK

Oct. 4–11, $5.50–$9.50

See Rep Clock for schedule

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft Way, Berk.

(510) 642-1124

www.bampfa.berkeley.edu