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.