The Early Films of Olivier Assayas
In 2007 Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni died on the same day, prompting a lot of critics to wonder who would take their place in culture. For a while I wondered this as well; who would make work like Persona or The Passenger for our era, creating new stories and new metaphors with all the bold sincerity and originality of Bergman and Antonioni but addressing contemporary concerns? Then I realised the critics were just asking who would make films in the style of those two late directors, and the question became a lot less interesting. But if I’ve now got you wondering who’s making intelligent arthouse films that address issues that are relevant right now, you could do a lot worse than look to Olivier Assayas.
His first two feature-length films, Disorder and Winter’s Child, have just been reissued by Arrow Academy on Blu-Ray, although truthfully there are better places to start with his work. Arrow know this as well as anyone – that’s presumably why they reissued his international breakthrough Irma Vep a few months earlier. If you’re already hooked, though, these two flawed films have plenty to offer. Most obviously, the look of a film like Personal Shopper – all grungy houses, clean, antiseptic corporate spaces and sodium-lit nights – is clearly present in embryo.
One thing about Assayas’s later work that feels very contemporary is its nonjudgmental attitude towards younger characters. Films like Clouds of Sils Maria treat social media as a fact of everyday life, quite different from the finger-wagging tone you expect from a fiftysomething arthouse director making a movie about the youths and their Twitbooks. In his youth, Assayas wasn’t always this generous towards his generation, with Disorder feeling like a particularly chilly watch. Its tale of a post-punk band committing a crime then falling apart in a flurry of recriminations feels too neat a match of story and soundtrack – of course the characters are alienated, listen to the music they’re making! It becomes a little one-paced, although it’s always stylish and the film comes to life in its concert scenes. Those who enjoyed the inspired use of Wire and The Feelies in 2010’s Carlos will find plenty to fill out a Spotify playlist here.
Disorder was reasonably well-received, but Winter’s Child was pilloried on release for being too melodramatic. You can see where the criticisms come from, but it actually looked like the stronger of the two films to me, with effective performances (particularly from the female leads) and a steadier, more consistent pace. It does neatly fit into a British audience member’s idea of what French cinema is about – professional characters managing a complex set of personal relationships in a way that’s simultaneously grown-up and angsty. But it does it very well, and it may be the clearest demonstration to date of Assayas’s fondness for Ingmar Bergman, with one resuscitation scene that’s worthy of Brink of Life.
Which brings us back where we started. Some of what makes Assayas so utterly relevant isn’t present in this set – it wasn’t until 21st-century films like Demonlover and Boarding Gate that he started thinking seriously about globalisation, and the handling of actors only gives the vaguest hints of the meaty, career-changing roles he’d later create with major international stars like Kristen Stewart and Maggie Cheung. They are, however, absorbing little chamber pieces in their own right, and for fans their availability will be exciting in and of itself. Even the likes of Claire Denis and Francois Ozon have early films that are very hard to get hold of in this country, but Arrow and Criterion UK have spent the second half of 2018 filling in the gaps in Assayas’ fans’ Blu-Ray collections. It’s hard not to see it as hard evidence that, right now, he really means something.