Gate Way: An(other) Interview with Olivier Assayas
By Nick Pinkerton
Reverse Shot first interviewed Olivier Assayas almost five years ago, in advance of the release of demonlover. A former critic himself, for Cahiers du cinema, Assayas proved himself a remarkable interview subject, more than willing to range over the course of his varied career in effort to piece together the (often unconscious) internal logic that structures his oeuvre. His newest film, the trashy techno-thriller Boarding Gate, might sound like nothing more than a demonlover rehash, but it's both more and less than that seminal work. A strict exercise in exploding genre, Boarding Gate lacks the bleak capitalist dismay of his earlier film—it’s been exchanged here for a cinematic adrenalin kick. Though it may feel tossed-off, this new work may well point towards a way out of the conundrum of the serious contemporary artist: how to represent and critique contemporary reality via the very aesthetic tropes that mark (and mask) its presence.
Staff writer Nick Pinkerton sat down with Olivier during his recent trip to New York.—JR
REVERSE SHOT: You seem to have quite a bit of control of your own destiny, and looking at the trajectory of your filmmaking, there seems to be some kind of logic at work. So in approaching Boarding Gate, what was the big concept?
OLIVIER ASSAYAS: Well, I think it was definitely an area I’d been wanting to explore for quite awhile, something I’d been attracted to, and I’d been using elements of it here and there, and I felt at some specific stage I had to have a shot at going all the way. Meaning making a movie that, whatever it is, functions within some kind of genre framework, and also that’s fully an English-language film, even though it’s a strange English-language film, in the sense that a lot of the characters use English as a second language. But still, it’s technically an English-speaking film. And it’s things I’ve been tackling, I think starting, in a way, with Irma Vep—you know, it’s Irma Vep that was this break in my way of approaching films, when all of a sudden I decided for myself that it was okay to mix genre, to mix cultures, and that movies sometimes could be experiments, that within the format of modern cinema, within the format of narrative, you could experiment by mixing elements. So it kind of opened up the door to try things in areas where normally, as an independent French filmmaker you would not go. And I’ve been using, starting I suppose with demonlover, genre elements here and there. It also has to do with the fact that for ages I’ve wanted to make a film in Hong Kong. It goes back as far as I can remember, I suppose since I was there for the first time in the middle eighties, I’ve always had it in the back of my mind. And somehow, obviously the key to it was, again, you know, just making something that’s within the genre framework, and to me it was pretty natural. It was like a missing jigsaw piece somewhere in my filmmaking.
RS: So you think Boarding Gate has the “straightest,” for lack of a better term, use of thriller elements that you’ve tried? I saw a kind of kinship with demonlover in its abstraction.
OA: I suppose that it’s as straightforward as I can get. I don’t think I can do too much better in that direction. But you know it’s interesting, I don’t know if it makes sense, but I was struck by a friend of mine, Nicolas Saada, who used to be a writer for Cahiers and now is a filmmaker, and when he saw the film, his reaction was: “You have made a movie about addiction, which is demonlover, then you made a movie, Clean, which is about going clean, and now you’ve made a movie that’s about both things at the same time.” Which was, you know, told as a joke, but somehow it kind of stuck with me, and I thought it was not a bad way of looking at it.
RS: I have a skewed reaction to the movie, which I saw on a DVD screener, which had no subtitles, and my French is not much and my Chinese is nonexistent, so the narrative was, for me, very obtuse. I don’t know how important that is, but it’s not a movie where things really click into place at any given point.
OA: Well, yeah, I suppose it’s part of the film in the sense that, when you say “genre filmmaking,” it doesn’t mean that you have to follow the specific rules, or it’s not like of saying, “Oh, I’m going to use the stereotypes connected with this specific genre.” It means you are working within a framework where you have some kind of license to surprise the viewer, and move in leaps and bounds, and somehow the viewer is expected to be in a position where he accepts to be surprised by the twists and turns. That’s something that obviously interests me.
RS: One of the things that struck me is that there was no point where I felt like I was “settling in” to the movie—
OA: Yeah, it’s not meant to be taken that way, in the sense that… one sign of it is that you have to be more or less in the situation of the character, who herself is just being pushed around and has very little grasp. Ultimately, like many characters in my films, she is trying to figure out what is going on around her. She starts by thinking she has some kind of notion, that she is pulling this or that string, but she ends up in a world where she has to figure out the hidden pattern of things—which is basically what Irma Vep was about, what Une Nouvelle vie, which I made ages ago, was about, or even Clean, when the character of Emily goes back to Paris and has to understand how the world has changed while she was gone. And somehow it’s put in more excessive terms in Boarding Gate, because that’s what genre is about… Because in a movie, it’s about a thing in-and-of itself, in a genre movie, it’s about life and death, all of a sudden people have guns and this and that.
RS: Though it’s rarely pushed to the forefront, you’re always very attentive the economics of characters, their situations. And though there’s certainly nothing explicit here, Boarding Gate’s triangular relationship between an American, a European, and an Asian, all tied up in international business, suggests some global economic metaphor.
OA: It’s many questions in one, but I suppose that the geography of the film was very much part of the project. To me, the character of Miles and whatever goes on in Paris, is not so much France or the States or whatever—ultimately it’s the Western world. And to me it has to do with the trade between the financial circuits of money, and ultimately of commodity, between Asia and the West. The beginning of the film basically could be anywhere; it could be New York, it could be London, it could be in Paris…
RS: I’ve actually read different recaps of the movie that say the first part is in London, others say Paris.
OA: Yeah, yeah, yeah, because, on purpose, I filmed almost nothing in Paris within Paris—everything is suburban.
RS: And commercial parks always look the same, wherever you are.
OA: Yeah, so to me it was more about this circulation between East and West, which is, you know, ultimately, part of the modern world, in the sense that the trade routes have always been what defines the present at any specific moment in history, and now, obviously, what the world is gravitating around is Chinese growth. Whatever is happening now in Asia, in India, what is going on in Russia…it’s those parts of the world that are catching up with modern history, creating this huge turmoil where anything can happen, which defines the world we live in.
RS: I just thought, watching the movie as an American, the Miles character being this guy who’s gone to seed a little bit, is kind of past his prime, and it plays into something that’s very much in the air right now, anxiety about America’s global status shrinking, however incrementally. And the door is open to some allegorical reading…
OA: When you are within genre—and maybe it’s my fantasy of it, I suppose—things are both very physical, very rough, very immediate, and at the same time they are abstract, poetic, and you end up dealing with abstract ideas. Much more than in a movie that would deal in a straightforward way with those issues.
RS: Your saying “poetic” reminds me of something you’ve said—which I’m quite fond of—that a modern viewer sees things in a more poetic way.
OA: Yes, ultimately it’s a very interesting issue, but very difficult to answer. Because we are accustomed to such a diverse relationship with images—meaning changing channels on TV, watching one-half of a DVD and then just moving on to something else, then watching another half of another film, or watching just the end of one film on TV, watching three minutes of a movie on YouTube, whatever… For quite awhile, generations have grown up being bombarded with images, and with TV the relationship between meaning and images follows completely different routes. Previous generations needed a certain solidity of the narrative, they had continuity people who were sitting there saying “Oh, if the guy opens this door and then goes through this other door, the audience will be lost, they won’t understand the space of the flat”—or you’d need to give the information in this clear way or otherwise the audience won’t understand what’s going on. And ultimately you realize that it’s a generational thing, it’s older audiences. I mean, every single time I have to discuss meaning or the dramatic logic of my films, it’s always with older viewers. Younger audiences are accustomed to a completely different logic in terms of moving inside images and films, and I think they move using more poetic connections. And the disturbing factor is, I’m not sure if this is good or bad. There’s some kind of loss within the process, because I think meaning is essential. When you say “poetic,” it’s like—I don’t want to go too far within that issue—it’s like the difference between the movies of Kenneth Anger and music videos. Kenneth Anger’s movies, shot-by-shot, are packed with meaning, whereas music videos can be edited, and use some kind of the syntax of the movies of Kenneth Anger, but all of a sudden they’re just empty because they’re basically selling the song they’re illustrating. So there is a thin line there that’s kind of difficult to control, so you have to trust.
RS: It’s interesting that you say you don’t know if it’s good or bad, because I can think of few, for lack of a better term, “art-house filmmakers” who seem as invested in the here-and-now. And though you seem largely immune to nostalgia, you show a deep ambivalence about where we are now.
OA: I think there are different periods in my work, and I suppose that for a long time I considered cinema as being—to use things that are very conventional in the mouths of a lot of French filmmakers—an act of resistance to the modern world. That radicality in cinema involved just being outside of the world of modern images, and the key to it was the work of Robert Bresson, who has been by far the most important influence in my work, and intellectually it’s been the influence of Guy Debord—basically, you know, it’s been DeBord-Bresson, Bresson-DeBord, the things that’ve always defined my framework, the way I look at the world. And at some stage I just thought, “No”—you can go that far in terms of refusing the world and having some kind of moral or ethic about it, but then I think you end up missing something, and at this point, I don’t think there’s any issue in terms of radical posturing in relationship to this world, or whatever direction this world is going in. It’s more interesting to deal with this by using, or by trying to grasp, the language of the modern world, by trying to understand it and by somehow appropriating it in your own way. It’s more interesting in terms of cinema today. It’s something I’ve been very strongly attracted to—as opposed to making a movie about the horrible facts of the war in Iraq and representing that, or getting statements about unemployment and poverty in Europe or whatever. The problem is that that dialectic is something that most movies deal with, like one movie out of two deals with that, with very little effect. I suppose that when you make movies, you have a shot at trying to represent things in a language slightly different than the one that everybody else uses; otherwise why make movies?
RS: I remember that student Marxist film in Irma Vep that they’re watching during the dinner scene, which seems like an artifact…
OA- Which is kind of interesting—and disturbing also for me, because when I was a teenager, that was reality. Those were the movies I watched, because I was a Leftist schoolboy, and that kind of militant cinema was what one had to do; that was the one relevant thing.
RS: It’s maybe the only note of direct protest I can think of, regardless of all the ambivalence you show about progress in Les Destinées…
OA- There is ambivalence—Les Destinées is something else, because Les Destinées deals with another world that’s gone. It’s like Atlantis. It’s more about… Okay, there’s an Abel Ferrara movie, Snake Eyes, which is about filmmaking, and I think it has one of the smartest and most daring moments in cinema. Abel Ferrara has always had this persona of being a wildman and a crackhead or whatever, but at that time he was not so much out-of-control. He was making this movie about filmmaking, and he was into this really radical thing in the way it’s shot, the way it’s done, etcetera, and in the evening he goes home and he’s eating pasta with his wife, listening to opera in some, like, Upper East Side flat.
RS: The film with Madonna? It was called Dangerous Game here.
OA: Right, Dangerous Game, in Europe it’s called Snake Eyes… And I thought it was extremely courageous for him to represent himself in that ambiguous position. Because that’s the truth of the life of any filmmaker today, and the life of any radical writer today, or whatever. Everybody now lives within the modern world, and benefits in one way or another from this transformation of it, and we end up having extremely ambiguous relationships with it. You know, I can’t say I hate mainstream Hollywood films. I watch them—I think they’re good, I’m kind of impressed. I watched Cloverfield the other day and I thought it was pretty good filmmaking, I was not surprised…
RS: I was feeling some weird, obtuse connections in Boarding Gate—maybe it’s the casting, but it brought up traces of Species, New Rose Hotel…
OA: Sure, sure—Asia was amazing in that film. But I think this is dialectic; you have to deal with your own repulsion-fascination with the modern world. You can’t escape this unless you are some kind of Jansenist monk, which is an interesting position to be in, in terms of art, but if that’s not the way you live, you know… You just deal with it.