Olivier Assayas at TIFF: An inventive filmmaker's lifetime journey

By Liam Lacey

Admired for the fluidity of his filmmaking style and sensitivity to modern dislocated global culture, the 62-year-old French director, Olivier Assayas is a restlessly inventive filmmaker and ambassador for global cinema. 

And the new TIFF summer series, Something in the Air: The Cinema of Olivier Assayas (June 22-Aug. 13), is a chance to take a deep breath of his oeuvre.

An adolescent during the May 1968 French riots, the director was impressed by Guy Debord and his Situationist International, the coalition of anarcho-Marxists and proto-media jammers that denounced apathy as one of capitalism's great sins. Their posters and slogans ("Boredom is counter-revolutionary”) inspired the 1968 French insurrections, and a few years later,  the punk rock movement in England.

It's a philosophy in synch with Assayas' desire to shed the weightiness of conventional filmmaking for sketch-like concision of scenes, the flittering handheld camera, the sudden jumps in time.

 Coldwater, Irma Vep, Carlos

Coldwater, Irma Vep, Carlos

 Apart from Carlos, his remarkable made-for-TV docudrama, Assayas' films tend to come in pairs. Two semi-autobiographical films, set in the seventies, are about youth and rebellion, Cold Water (1994), has the sting of loss while Something in the Air (2011), is a rueful look back at ideological battles There's are also two modern genre films, demonlover and Boarding Gate, and two genteel family dramas Summer Hours and Les Destinées sentimentales.  Two films star Hong Kong action star, Maggie Cheung, playing herself in the film-about-filmmaking, Irma Vep, and the recovering-drug-user film Clean, Currently, his favourite female lead is Twilight star, Kristen Stewart,  co-star of Clouds of Sils Maria with Juliette Binoche, and the new ghost story, Personal Shopper, 

My personal top-10 list starts from Cold Water (1994) which Assayas has called his "second first film,” after four previous features. I haven't included his documentaries, or Personal Shopper (August 16 at 6 p.m. at TIFF Bell Lightbox) which opened when I was out of the country. The complete schedule can be found at Tiff.net.


 1. Carlos (2010). Assayas' mini-series about the terrorist/revolutionary known as Carlos the Jackal, runs five and a half hour running time (there's a shorter theatrical cut), and it could be called Breathless. The film hurtles forward in cars, winging from country to country in airplanes, bursting through hotel and apartment doors. Both spare and sprawling, it portrays a shadowy 1970s world of Palestinian terrorists, Middle East dictators, Japanese revolutionaries, Eastern Bloc puppet-masters and German hippies, all working with a Venezuelan mercenary (Edgar Ramírez) motivated mostly by monstrous vanity.

Carlos. Sun, Aug. 6, 3:15 p.m.  TIFF Bell Lightbox

2. Irma Vep (1996) 

A satire of an indie French movie, where every crew member puts his orher interests first. Jean-Pierre Léaud plays a burned-out French director who wants to remake the silent-era melodrama, Les Vampires, with the Hong Kong star, Maggie Cheung (playing herself) as the Latex-clad leader of a gang of jewel thieves. Midst the general comic dysfunction of this mock-documentary film, there are two gorgeously cinematic sequences: In the first, Cheung decides to re-create her character's raids as she snatches a necklace from another guest's room. The second is the hair-raising black-and-white accidentally avant-garde film that brings the film to a close.

Screened Sat. June 24.


3. Cold Water (1994)

A young-adult story with a gut-punch ending, Assayas' fifth film was his creative breakthrough in the free-flowing style that became his trademark. The script follows two delinquent teen lovers in the early seventies, Giles (Cyprien Fouquet) and Christine (Virginie Ledoyen). Neither of Christine's parents want her at all and she's sent to a psychiatric institution. She escapes, and she and Giles run away together and join one of cinema's greatest house parties at a chateau in the country, complete with bonfires, dope, dancing, destruction and the flittering, circling deeply involved camera.

Screened June 22.


4. Late August, Early September (1998)

This is Assayas' version of The Big Chill,. It follows a group of close friends, including Gabriel (a terrific Mathieu Amalric), a writer-editor and his 40-year-old friend, Adrien (François Cluzet) who is facing a serious illness and conducting an "embarrassing" affair with a teen-aged schoolgirl (played by Assayas' future spouse, Mia Hansen-Løve). It's refreshingly specific about such practical and ethical questions: where to live, what to do, who to love.

Screened June 24.


 5. Something in the Air (2012)

A revisit to the early 1970s student world of Cold Water, but here the students are a year or two older, and revolution, not just rebellion, is in the air. This clear-eyed look back to the director's youth immerses us in a world of activists, ideological bullies and hippie artists as they sleep together, binge on ideas, get high and engage in politically-justified violent vandalism. Gilles (Clément Métayere ), is a 17-year-old in his last year of high school on his way to art college. But he’s beginning to have doubts about whether he owes more to his ambition or the shape-shifting cause.

 Something in the Air. Sat. Aug. 5, 8:30, TIFF Bell Lightbox.


6. Summer Hours (2008)

 At a beautiful estate outside Paris, 75-year-old widow Hélène (Edith Scob invites her three fortysomething offspring to talk about the disposal of the family paintings, furniture and glassware before she dies. The oldest son, Frédéric (Charles Berling), an economist, assumes that the home will remain as a focal point for the extended family. But his younger brother, who runs a shoe factory in China, and their sister, a designer in New York and Tokyo, have different ideas.  Both light and serious, Summer Hours is an elegant exploration of different kinds of value - personal, familial, cultural and monetary - in the context of globalization.

August 1, 6:30 p.m.



7. Les Destinées Sentimentales (2000)

Assayas, who placed Luchino Visconti's The Leopard as his top film in a Criterion list, has no argument with careful set design, beautiful costumes or the achievements of upper crust in the past. Adapted from the early novel by Jacques Chardonne,  set during the first three decades of the 20th century, the film follows Jean Barnery (Charles Berling), a clergyman and  heir to a famous porcelain company in the first three decades of the 20th century,  following the changes he undergoes through two marriages and professions, eventually coming back to the family business,  facing challenges froa cheaper Japanese and American rivals. A poignant three-hour immersion in times past.

 Les Destinés Sentimentales screened on Sunday, June 25 at 6:45 p.m. 

 8. Clean (2004)

Though hip and visually compelling, Clean never consistently finds its emotional groove. The film begins with the overdose death of a rock star in a Hamilton, Ontario motel. His widow and fellow user (Maggie Cheung) is jailed. She resolves to head home to Paris, get clean and try to reclaim her little boy from his paternal grandparents (Nick Nolte and Martha Henry). Cheung is credible as a woman trying to learn to stop running (though not as a rock singer) but the best performance in the film belongs to Nick Nolte as a grieving father learning to forgive. 

Clean screened on Friday, June 23 at 6:15 p.m. 



 9. Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)

If you want to watch two famous actresses in a movie about the psychological challenges of acting, this might be enough. Kristen Stewart, fidgety and enigmatic, plays Valentine, personal assistant to Maria (Binoche), a vulnerable French diva who is considering a role that forces her to confront her mortality. Valentine and Maria lounge around their Swiss chalet, talk on cell phones and wander through Alpine meadows practicing line-readings, as life and art become confused. 

Clouds of Sils Maria screens Thursday, August 10 at 6:15 p.m. 



 10. Demonlover and Boarding Gate.

To my thinking, Assayas is not in his element in the world of night car chases, spiked drinks, burglaries and sneaky double crosses, but he gets an auteur pass from critics when he does a cerebral dabble in genre filmmaking. demonlover, starring Danish star Connie Nielsen, is a neon-lit barely-coherent thriller about internet fantasies, the global trade in images and readily clickable sadistic porno – all of which seemed more shocking in David Cronenberg's Videodrome (1983). Weirdly, there's a sequence of a woman in a Wonder Woman outfit tied to a torture table; Nielsen played the super-heroine's mother in the recent Wonder Woman blockbuster.

    Boarding Gate is Assayas' self-described experiment in B-movie-making, with a preposterous plot set in Paris and Hong Kong, involving a former prostitute (Asia Argento), a corporate sleazeball (Michael Madsen) and an ambitious young Hong Kong couple.  Here, the draw is Argento, who possesses a lurid presence plus, no matter how bizarre the circumstances.

demonlover screens on Saturday, July 8 at 6:30 p.m

Boarding Gate screens on Saturday, July 15 at 7:30 p.m. 

Liam Lacey

Liam Lacey is a former film critic for The Globe and Mail, as well as contributor to various other media outlets over the past 37 years.. He recently returned to Canada from Spain because he forgot about the weather