PRINT Summer 1999


Kristin Jones talks with Olivier Assayas

ITALO CALVINO ONCE DESCRIBED his primary working method as “the subtraction of weight,” an idea that also animates the latest film from the forty-four-year-old French director Olivier Assayas. Late August, Early September, which opens in New York in early July, is a story about suffering and death, but one infused with an extraordinary degree of lightness and spontaneity, stemming in part from the film’s elliptical construction and loosely sketched characters. This effortless quality is the result of years of exploration on Assayas’s part. He studied painting and literature, then wrote film criticism and screenplays before making his first feature, a stylized teen psychodrama entitled Disorder (1986). This first effort led to a string of inventive narratives featuring young people on the edge, including Winter’s Child (1989) and Paris at Dawn (1991). After enjoying an international festival hit with his 1996 Irma Vep—an exhilarating meditation on cinema past and present, starring Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung—Assayas turned his attention to HHH (1997), a documentary about the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien.

Late August, Early September follows several thirty-something intellectuals—in particular Gabriel, a budding writer—as they grapple with the terminal illness of a slightly older member of their circle, the novelist Adrien. After Adrien’s death, his friends discover that he bequeathed his most treasured possession, a Beuys stag drawing, to his sixteen-year-old lover, Véra. This briefly glimpsed object becomes an elusive emblem of creativity and regeneration. If Disorder’s disaffected teens were drawn to death like moths to a flame, Assayas’s latest film addresses what he calls “the obscene way that life has of continuing,” an inexorable flow embodied in restless camerawork and the delicate, watercolor-like quality of his image.

As Late August, Early September opened in Paris last February, Cahiers du Cinema published Assayas’s In Praise of Kenneth Anger: True and False Magic in the Cinema, a monographic look at the self-styled magus of avant-garde cinema—and author of Hollywood Babylon (1975)—whom Assayas greatly admires. In fact, Assayas’s pursuit of a variety of influences, ranging from Robert Bresson to Andy Warhol, reflects a healthy spirit of experimentation within French filmmaking.

Kristin Jones

KRISTIN JONES: How did you come to make Late August, Early September?

OLIVIER ASSAYAS: It’s been a long process, and it’s very much connected to my going through a period during the late ’80s, early ’90s, when three of my friends died from AIDS. Everything that was being said about death made me uneasy because it didn’t relate to my own experience. We’re afraid of mortality, but the dead endure in strange ways—through their work, through people who’ve come to know them. The film grew out of the idea that it’s more interesting to show death from the survivors’ viewpoint. The opposite produces pathos—even if the dying person is strong and courageous, it becomes melodramatic. It could have stayed in my drawer, but I kept adding touches, and it became a magnet for many daily experiences.

I realized I had to make the film after a process I went through of radically changing my conception of the relationship between real life and art. During the early part of my career I viewed cinema as a separate world of emotions and ideas—obviously, it was connected to my life, but there was a border somewhere. I suddenly thought, “Why not use characters from real life, mix in nonprofessionals and see what happens?” These ideas arose when I was directing Cold Water [1994], a TV movie about teenagers. Working with kids was far lighter than working with professionals, and dealing with my own adolescent ideals and emotions during the ’70s brought many things to life. Until then everything had seemed very clear, but suddenly there were new dimensions in reach. Late August, Early September is where it’s all been leading, in that I was able to move much further away from conventional storytelling.

KJ: Were you influenced by Hou Hsiao-hsien’s movies? I’m thinking of the elliptical construction, the naturalistic details, the characters whose lives are changing . . .

OA: Hou’s work, yes, but even more than that, Chinese dramaturgy in general, which involves 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. I felt the reality of the central character in Late August, Adrien, is just a combination of different points of view, all completely valid.

KJ: You recently said you’re becoming more and more interested in the “absolute subjectivity of language.” This seems to be reflected in the various discussions about writing in Late August, Early September, for example, when Gabriel asks, “Can stories really describe the world?” Do such questions reflect doubts you yourself have wrestled with?

OA: This involves what we’ve been talking about, in that. . . no, I don’t believe in storytelling; yes, I believe you can tell stories. I do believe fiction can describe the world. What is so powerful in filmmaking is its ability to represent true emotions. For me the most precious thing is when something real happens on a character’s face. It’s just beautiful—I suppose it’s the one reason I make films. It’s also why I have a specific relationship to re-creating reality through actors, because acting can be extremely fake. When you have snappy dialogue—it’s horrible. No one’s like that!

I’m interested in the way everyone has a complex relationship to language. For example, I’m talking about this film, but am I telling the truth? Am I lying to myself? I know that when I’m making a movie, things are very clear. But can words capture those feelings? I always think about this when I’m working with actors because I know when I want a specific emotion I won’t use the word for it, but just pray the actor understands.

KJ: At a panel discussion after one screening of Late August, Early September, you remarked that you allowed the actors a lot of freedom, and Mathieu Amalric [who plays Gabriel] responded that on the other hand the writing was so precise he found everything he needed in the screenplay. This reminded me of John Cassavetes’s films, which many thought were improvised even when they were carefully scripted.

OA: Cassavetes was the greatest underrated playwright of modern history, and one of those rare figures, like Ingmar Bergman or Rainer Fassbinder, who are at once great playwrights and great filmmakers—half and half. He completely invented a style of filmmaking just to fit his writing. This circulation between writing and cinema is quite powerful, and ultimately it’s the one thing I believe in. You must love writing dialogue and have a sensual love of words, because it’s the only way you can have a grasp on human emotions and describe them accurately.

You have to keep that pleasure and concentration throughout the whole process of making the film, and that means giving the actors as much freedom as you can with the words. I always think the actors know more than I about the character, and if they change the words or the pace, there will be something more—it will sound true. I love David Mamet’s work, but he tries to retain in his writing all the imperfections of language, things that should happen between the actors.

KJ: I was struck by the way you deployed the Joseph Beuys drawing. It was interesting—after I first saw the film I remembered the drawing as this golden note glowing against a pervasive blue tone, then I saw the film again and realized the Beuys was brownish and that I’d been confusing it with the yellow flowers Véra brings to Adrien shortly after we first glimpse the drawing. Are the two objects intended to echo one another?

OA: Véra, the flowers, and the Beuys drawing are really one and the same thing to me. They express the same idea, in that they’re about the lightness you look for in art. I really admire the work of Beuys, the way his work is poised between weight and lightness. I think the goal of all art is to achieve that kind of easiness and lightness. It’s hard to explain because it’s a little complicated, but I’m sure this grew out of meeting Francesco Clemente, who is a person and artist I admire very much, and it’s through speaking with him that I came to these ideas about how you can find grace in art.

KJ: When you mention “grace” it recalls the films of Robert Bresson and Eric Rohmer. I assume you’re not using the word in the same way?

OA: Of course you have to be precise with words, and Bresson and Rohmer are extremely careful in their use of “grace.” Obviously it’s a very religious use in their case , and I doubt they’d use the word the way I do. It’s not that religion doesn’t matter to me—it does—I just don’t have faith, like most modern people. It’s an idea I understand but don’t feel. I’m using the word “grace” in a more modest fashion, in the sense of expressing oneself in a way that is liberated as much as possible from the weight of the world, the weight of technique, the weight of conventional filmmaking, the weight of money. I love the texture of film, but I hate the heaviness of the technique—it’s part bureaucracy, part army, part banking . . . you constantly struggle against that weight. People tell me it’s so complicated to make films—it’s not! The machine works by itself. You just have to be there to say “Action! ” and “Cut! ” I’m exaggerating a little, but not much, because you don’t need ideas. You have a screenplay, technicians, a reasonable IQ, and the machine works by itself to produce a completely conventional film. Obviously I have a problem with that—I think everything should be questioned, even if it seems minor.

KJ: The last line of Late August, Early September is very haunting, when Gabriel is asked a question about the novel he hopes to write, and he responds, “ . . . if I make it to the end.” Were you trying to suggest the incompleteness of any artistic project?

OA: No, it’s more about doubt, about how when you decide you’re going to be a novelist, or a filmmaker, or a painter, you’re very uncertain, and have to be conscious that you’re at the beginning of the road. It relates to what I was saying about being careful with language because when you utter the words somehow the thing escapes you. I don’t think a character like Gabriel would say, “Yes, I’m going to write a novel, a great novel, then I’ll write another, and then I’ll be a novelist.” We leave him at the crossroads, at a point where maybe he can start going in his own direction.

KJ: Do you feel a responsibility to bring the work of filmmakers like Kenneth Anger and Hou Hsiao-hsien to greater public attention?

OA: Well, Hou has been consistently making great films, so I suppose he doesn’t need me for people to be aware of his work. It did take a while, and hopefully my film [HHH] helped a little, but it’s more that this documentary or short Anger book can raise issues that are important in cinema today—at least they’re important to me, so I’m trying to share them.

For me, there are three essential figures in American cinema: Cassavetes, Warhol, and Anger, who has made few films, and they’re quite distinct from one another. They reflect completely different approaches and subject matter, and were shot in various parts of the world—Paris, LA, New York, San Francisco. I was intrigued to see that someone as daringly abstract as he is can also be so involved with his own personal experience. He’s made films the way a poet writes poems; there ’s no separation between his fantasy world and his life. My book also addresses how important that way of moviemaking is to the history of cinema. You don’t need Hollywood budgets, or even independent budgets—you can work the way Anger did and still be a great filmmaker.

KJ: Did you see his films when you were a teenager?

OA: I saw them without understanding them—I just thought they were beautiful, exciting, and hip. When I watched them again a few years ago, what struck me was the way it all made complete sense. I admire the honesty of Anger’s work: he never made a film twice, never made one for money. I was also impressed by how much has been stolen from him—things he invented, that came out of his life experience, have become visual gimmicks. You see this in everything from music videos to Hollywood movies.

KJ: What is the relationship between your films and painting? A critic in Cahiers du Cinéma recently remarked that your work oscillates between two poles—writing and painting. Do you agree?

OA: I might not have said it that way, though I suppose it makes sense. However, I’d like not to oscillate, but to connect those two things as strongly as I can. I don’t want to be pedantic about it, though, because when you’re dealing with the connection between painting and cinema, it can quickly become too . . .

KJ: . . . too labored . . .

OA: . . . but when I was a teenager until I was twenty-five, painting and drawing were an important part of my life. Although I wouldn’t dare look at those things now, I think they taught me a lot about how to capture invisible things, how art can capture emotion. I love words, and somehow consider myself a writer, but I still know that the strongest things are said without words. So what I’m looking for, in terms of filmmaking, is to connect those two things—to use words and . . . non-words (laughter).

KJ: I don’t know if this is happening in France, but in the United States some journalists are calling French filmmakers of your generation the “new New Wave.” Do you see this as media hype?

OA: Yes, it’s hype. Whenever you have more than one interesting filmmaker in France at a time it becomes a “nouvelle Nouvelle Vague.” I suppose I can only give the standard response, which is that historically the New Wave was extremely important. They invented a different kind of film, with new values, a new way of relating to the cinema of the past; they benefited from new techniques, lighter cameras, and more sensitive film stock. And they opened the way for everything that happened afterward. In that sense the New Wave can’t happen twice. But I will say that today there are perhaps more exciting French directors than at any other period, and I’m happy to be working here because I can have a dialogue with many interesting artists. It’s not only the older generation of the New Wave who are still making exciting films, but people like Philippe Garrel, André Techiné, and Benoît Jacquot, who are producing their more mature work. You have younger directors, such as Cédric Kahn, Arnaud Desplechin, Patricia Mazuy, and Claire Denis.

KJ: What about the line some are drawing between the work of filmmakers like yourself and Arnaud Desplechin, and others, like Gaspar Noé and Mathieu Kassovitz, who make films about the underclasses in France?

OA: It’s just two different visions of filmmaking. It’s like comparing David Cronenberg and John Carpenter or Hal Hartley and Atom Egoyan. They can have a dialogue with each other, but are very different artists exploring different fields. People like Kassovitz or Noé have this idea that only their way of making films is right and the rest is boring crap, which is totally adolescent. I’m not impressed by Kassovitz’s work, but I saw a short Noé film which I thought was very interesting, so I’m curious to see his feature.

KJ: Can you tell me about your next project?

OA: It’s adapted from a novel by the great French writer Jacques Chardonne, who died in 1968; it’s set in southwest France in the beginning of the century, and tells the story of a couple during a lifetime. For me it’s weird, because it’s quite long, with costumes and sets. All this adds up to a fortune, and for the first time I’II have to deal with things most filmmakers have to face but I’ve been escaping. I actually wrote the screenplay two-and-a-half years ago, and the project was postponed. Now it’s finally happening, but because I lived with it for six months back then, I feel like I’m retracing my steps. I’ve been telling my friends that I feel as if I lived this in another lifetime. Suddenly the book I was adapting has become part of my own memory, and I’m remembering a dreamed life as I walk through those sets.

KJ: I’m curious to see how it turns out.

OA: So am I.

Kristin Jones is a writer living in New York.