Interview by Joshua Rubin
So, what is it about Parisian filmmakers that makes all their movies seem so sophisticated?
Is it the relaxed sexual morals of a city where there are naked girls in ads for tuna fish? Is it the philosophical climate fostered by street cafés and public intellectuals? Or is it how strong their coffee and cigarettes come?
In anticipation of the upcoming Rendez-vous with French Film Festival at Lincoln Center (March 10–19, 2006) – my favorite reason to be in New York every spring – I’m reprinting here an interview I did last year (for the Svedka Vodka blog, Garden of Sweden) with French film director Olivier Assayas.
I got to sit down with Assayas, and ask him his opinion on French and American cinema, during a screening of his powerful last film Clean. It stars Nick Nolte and Maggie Cheung, who won Best Actress when the film premiered at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. It was released in the U.S. by Palm Pictures, last spring. There are currently no plans to release a DVD in the States, but good Region 3 copies are available on the net.
I was shocked, when we met, to discover that Assayas turned 50 this year. Both because his films seem so edgy and fresh, and because he only started to become known in the States this past decade, with his films – the coming of age story Cold Water (1994), the genre-crashing Irma Vep (1996), my personal favorite, the beautiful Late August/Early September (1998), and the daring but critically-panned Demonlover (2002). But, he has a good 20 films he’s written and directed, and he’s a long time writer for seminal French film journal Cahiers du Cinema.
I began by asking what he thought it was about these later films that suddenly attracted an American audience to his work.
ASSAYAS: Well, actually, I think Cold Water was a turning point in the way I was making films. Because, the first films I made were more specifically French. They were certainly not conventional films by any standard, but they were part of the Independent French cinema. And I think with L’Eau Froide, I kind of broke that mold. It’s a film I made with a very small budget, it’s a semi-autobiographical film with teenagers, and it was very much a way of reconnecting with the kind of filmmaking that made me want to make films in the first place. It really brought out a new freedom in me, that ultimately was the context within which I made the subsequent films – Irma Vep, Late August and even my documentary on Hsiao-Hsien.
SUBVERSE: There’s something beautiful about that, this idea that when you finally find what it is you really wanted to say to begin with, suddenly you get that worldwide recognition.
ASSAYAS: Yes. Right.
SUBVERSE: Because, your last two films, Clean and Demonlover, had big sections set in America, I’m wondering about your relationship with this country.
ASSAYAS: Recently, I really needed, for many reasons, to get out of France. I mean, not in a way of changing my way of making films, but I felt a little trapped in the framework of French cinema. I think crossing borders allows me to touch on subjects different from what French cinema is usually doing. It also has to do with the fact that I travel a lot, and my reality is multinational. So, I suppose I make films that are in connection with whatever I live.
SUBVERSE: Why do you say that French cinema made you feel trapped?
ASSAYAS: Because, I think the space for independent filmmaking in France has shrunk a lot. Now, the financing system has made things pretty tough. Now, broadcasting has the power over films. Films are made according to their potential on mainstream network TV. And, of course, that very much narrows the possibilities, in terms of storytelling, dramaturgy…
SUBVERSE: That’s exactly the story in Hollywood. The American film industry is completely run by money. But, I always thought that French filmmakers had more freedom because so much of the production money came from the government, and so film could be more of an art form than a business.
ASSAYAS: No. There’s much less money than you think coming from the government. The system of state grants is ultimately financed by a specific tax on tickets. So, there’s one tiny share of each movie ticket that goes to a fund that supports the making of movies. Ultimately, the state is not actually putting money in. It’s supporting a system that tries to make cinema self-supportive.
SUBVERSE: But, still, I get the sense that there’s so much more creative freedom allowed to filmmakers in France than in America.
ASSAYAS: That’s because you see the more daring French films. But they are difficult to make – they are very, very difficult to make.
SUBVERSE: You’re saying there’s just as much crap in France as here?
ASSAYAS: There’s even more! You have no idea. And whatever is exciting is really on the fringe. But, it’s that fringe that gets shown abroad. The rest is local mainstream comedies that are funny for French audiences, but they don’t make sense to anyone else.
SUBVERSE: Whereas it’s our crap that gets shown abroad.
ASSAYAS: Exactly! (laughs)
SUBVERSE: But still, I do think that the films – the independent films – that come out of France have an adult, artistic sensibility that even the independent films in America don’t reach. It just feels to me like French independent filmmakers have so much more respect for the audience.
ASSAYAS: Well, I think there’s a tradition in France of considering film as an art. Even if it’s kind of shrinking, still it’s very strongly part of the culture. Films are in the Art section in the newspapers, not in the Entertainment section. There’s very much this notion that film is an art, even with people who make only mainstream films. So, there’s a sophisticated audience primed for more mature movies. It’s there. And that’s of course a good thing for international film too. Small Art House films from other countries can often become big hits in France, I mean mainstream hits. In France you have a foundation of Cinephelia. Which makes – even when things are not so great – at least you can rely on that.
SUBVERSE: Do you think that’s something that started with the French New Wave in the 70s, or do you think it goes back further than that?
ASSAYAS: I’m sure there are many things that lead into it from before, but it’s very much what was established by the French Nouvelle Vague.
SUBVERSE: I’m trying to understand why we don’t have that in America. I suppose, here it’s always been a business, ever since cinema was invented and the first flicker arcades went up and the Warner brothers moved out to Los Angeles. Well, actually, the Lumière brothers invented cinema in France, but here we re-invented it as a business. And in France somehow you escaped our fate, maybe because it was slower to develop and it was more renegade at the beginning, people grabbing what equipment was available and making what they could with it.
ASSAYAS: Yes. And I think that in France we’ve also been extremely lucky because, at two very specific important moments, there has been a political support for filmmaking. One was Andre Malraux [who was made Minister of Culture] under General de Gaulle, around the time of the Nouvelle Vague in the early 60s. And then, under President Mitterand, there was Jack Lang, who was also a great Minister of Culture, who also adapted the system to the modern media. I don’t think that political will creates filmmakers or creates the cinema, but the fact that there was some support from the structure allowed for filmmakers to develop in the same way that other artists develop. When you see, for instance, the careers of the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague, they’ve been able to constantly develop their style the same way as painters or novelists work. And I think there’s been generation after generation of French filmmakers that have benefited from that.
SUBVERSE: We don’t even have anything like a Minister of Culture in America. We barely have funding for PBS. – One last question: Have you been courted by Hollywood? Have you ever been tempted to work here?
ASSAYAS: Once in a while I get screenplays, but I’ve never really taken it seriously. I don’t think I could function within the system. If I wanted to make a film in the states, I mean in English with American actors, I think I would be much better off financing it in Europe, because I can do it with the same level of freedom that I make my films with now. I mean, I’d be happy dealing with American actors, but I don’t want to be dealing with American studios or something. I just don’t have the patience.
Watching Pasolini’s Salò this weekend – a suggestion from the director on my current screenplay Kite – seems to have had a lasting effect on my psyche.
Kite’s based on an X-Rated Japanese anime, that we’re attempting to reimagine as a gritty, 70s style, artful exploitation flick, that pushes imagery of violence and sex in daring and uncompromising ways. Our influences are ranging from Lukas Moodyson’s Lilya-4-Ever to Chan-Wook Park’s Oldboy to Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible.
Salò, which I had never seen, seemed an obvious reference to add to the list. But it’s had a deeper impact on me than I expected. It’s made me particularly, queasily sensitive to images and descriptions of violence – which suddenly seem to be everywhere around me.
If I went to sleep after watching Salò that night (or rather, early that morning) with dark and disturbed dreams – the dreams have spread into my waking life in the days since…
- Reading this morning, references to rich young women being raped and scalped in Salman Rushdie’s Fury – imagery that was directly out of Salò.
- Reading in bed last night, an unexpected scene of gay erotica, a man being shaved by a straight razor, in David Benioff’s short story “Merde for Luck” – which was not violent, but turned my stomach with fear as it conjured images from Salò in my head.
- Over my coffee at Jack’s on West 10th, where I’m sitting now, a description in the New York Times by the French woman who had the partial face transplant last week. She describes the moment of waking up from an attempted sleeping pill suicide, and trying to light a cigarette. Confused that she couldn’t get the cigarette to stay between her lips. Looking in the mirror, and discovering that her labrador had chewed off her lips and chin and nose and cheeks.
- An article in the Village Voice I picked up, about the extended scenes of torture in the new horror film Hostel, comparing it to recent films of unrelenting cruelty, Wolf Creek and The Devils Rejects. How Hostel has been the highest grossing film for two weeks. And how Americans seem hungry for deeply disturbing images of sadism in our current political climate.
In the recent past, I could have let these descriptions filter into my consciousness without too much disturbance – maybe even, some titilation at their subversive button-pushing. But these past few days, since witnessing the deeply realistic acts of torture and sadism on my bedroom television screen, the merest mention of violence has made my stomach twist viscerally. And I’ve felt a heavy darkness fill up my chest, like from an imaginary gas pump shoved down my throat.
There’s a positive side to this, sure. Salò has removed my defenses – my mind’s normal ability to dismiss violence in the real world – by simply not engaging it. This modern inability to be shocked that we all worry about publicly, but secretly congratulate ourselves on. I had this same experience last year, after daring myself to watch one of those internet videos from Iraq, of a young man having his head sawed off. That instantly and deeply tore away my defenses, and for weeks afterward, I was incredibly sensitive to violence. But, to what end?
I’m not a violent person. I don’t need to have my awareness of the reality of violence raised, in order to inspire compassion and curb my cruel sadistic tendencies.
I’m an artist. (Well, a screenwriter.) Struggling with the question of whether or not, or to what extent, to include images of sadism in my work.
Because, I feel like there’s another, deeply negative effect that Salò has had on me. As my stomach has become increasingly susceptible to the violence around me, as my skin has become more porous and quick to crawl at sights of blood, I’ve started having very dark flashes. I’d describe them as waves of existential nausea. Where I suddenly become filled up with the feeling that this world is a very, very sinister place – inescapable and slaloming toward the abyss.
It’s a feeling I imagine people in asylums for the criminally insane have filling their heads on a permanent basis. Where all you see around you is the horrific. Where every new description of terror, every sight of a chewed up bone on the street, every disintegrating old man in a wheelchair staring helplessly as they’re pulled out of the world, compounds the horror you feel.
But for me, it’s only come in brief waves. Like a stab of adrenaline when the floor drops out from under you.
I’m very lucky. I have the kind of constitution that quickly overpowers the deep fears, with a strong assurance that the world is good.
And maybe that means I’m blind. Maybe I’ve been absurdly lucky, one of the rare people in the world to have witnessed no horror, to have experienced no trauma, no war, no genocide, no holocaust. And maybe films like Salò exist to wake me out of my stupidity, to see the true violence of the world.
But, as I lay in bed the other night, feeling the tremors and the guilt – another idea came to me.
Maybe there’s a reason I’ve been so blessed. Maybe there’s a higher purpose, if such a thing exists, for why I’ve been given both a peaceful life and a gift of writing.
Because, this world is a very sinister place, filled with horror. But it is also a stunningly beautiful place, filled with everyday acts of exquisite kindness. For every person whose head is sawed off on the internet by a desperate extremist or whose face is chewed off by their labrador while they try to escape from their life in their sleep – someone else falls in love. For the first time. And sees a world suddenly filled with light, brimming with possibility. Someone’s life is saved by an unexpected kindness, someone opens their home to a stranger and is rewarded with gratitude, someone passes out of this world in peace – and feels only joy as they are lifted away.
And it is that simultaneous crashing of contradictory realities that makes this world so complex and delicious.
Heard a great line on TV at 4 in the morning last night when I couldn’t sleep: “Know what the two best words in the English language are? Things Change.”
And maybe, this is my job. To see it all, and to write about what I can see. To remind those whose eyes are mired in the darkness, that the world is also made of light and that things change. And to remind those who are incapable of feeling the darkness, because they’ve never seen it, that the world is not kind to everyone and that everything changes.
Here’ some of Pasolini’s own writing on Salò I found.
Quite an intense subversive character. Poet, filmmaker, radical – murdered by a gay lover, or possibly a political assassination the week he finished editing Salò.
He makes it very clear here that his reason for making this film was to sensitize an audience to the horrors of fascism. And it’s hard to look at the images in this film – and not think of Bush’s Abu Graib.
…The entire film with its unheard-of atrocities which are almost unmentionable, is presented as an immense sadistic metaphor of what was the Nazi-Fascist ‘dissociation’ from its ‘crimes against humanity’.
Sade’s characters (who are clearly SS men in civilian dress) behave exactly with their victims as the Nazi-Fascists did with theirs. They considered them as objects and destroyed automatically all possibility of human relationship with them.
Practical reason says that during the Republic of Salò it would have been particularly easy given the atmosphere to organise, as Sade’s protagonists did, a huge orgy in a villa guarded by SS men. Sade says explicitly in a phrase, less famous than so many others, that nothing is more profoundly anarchic than power – any power. To my knowledge there has never been in Europe any power as anarchic as that of the Republic of Salò: it was the most petty excess functioning as government. What applies to all power was especially clear in this one.
In addition to being anarchic what best characterises power – any power – is its natural capacity to turn human bodies into objects. Nazi-Fascist repression excelled in this.
Man… This is a haunting song.
I think I first heard the Lou Rawls version of “St. James Infirmary.” I think it was on a mix tape with no song titles, and for years I had no idea what it was. Just that it was haunting.
Lou Rawls – St. James Infirmary
Eventually I heard the Louis Armstrong version, with Cab Calloway. Which I think is sort of the Ur-verison of this old tune. The one where the horns sweep in with a deep funeral timbre and lift you off your feet. I must’ve listened to it a hundred times, whenever I was lousy with the miseries. But because it met that mood, it lifted me out of it. It warmed my blood.
Louis Armstrong – St. James Infirmary (w_ Cab Calloway)
The last night, I started noticing how many version of this song there were. And I went a little crazy collecting them – had a good 33 different version by the time I went to bad. From Oing Boingo to Joe Cocker to The Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Nearly every single one was beautiful, in the same way – took me right back to that same soul place.
It’s a song about death. It’s about a man seeing the woman he loves stretched out dead on the hospital slab. But those horns rising and rising…. It’s a song about release. A song about acceptance. A song about drinking life in deeply, in all its pain and unfairness.
Here’s a few versions to get you started. Eventually, I may get them all up here:
Joe Cocker – St. James Infirmary (Live)
James Booker – St. James Infirmary Blues
Zephyr – St. James Infirmary (Tommy Bolin/guitar)
By the way, check out the picture of this guy, James Booker.
What a cool lookin’ dude. What an enigmatic smile.
Can anyone tell me more about this guy? I’ve never heard of him.