Quick takes on 5 Assayas films

My only experience with French director Olivier Assayas is a couple of his newer, English language films: Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper (both of which I loved). Today I’m going back to watch some of his French films, starting with 1994’s Cold Water. It follows two teenagers in love in 1972 Paris, Gilles and Christine. Both have been getting in trouble a lot lately, and Christine in particular is about 2 steps away from having am emotional breakdown, thanks to an abusive father. One day they are stealing records from a store when they are caught; Gilles is able to get away, but Christine is caught, and her dad decides enough is enough and sends her to a mental hospital. She escapes, and heads to a teenage party at an abandoned rural house. Gilles goes there too, only learning about Christine when he gets there. She’s having a meltdown, and has already chopped off her hair and stabbed a girl with the scissors. Gilles is able to calm her down, and when she broaches the subject of leaving all of their life behind and going out to live a bohemian lifestyle, he reluctantly agrees. The finale is completely unexpected but it works so well. This is a movie that grew on me as it went along. I honestly couldn’t stand either of the characters in the beginning, but I came around to them by the halfway point, and was rooting for them to find some kind of happiness by the end. I think the movie is open to a lot of interpretation. What I took from it is a couple of teenagers who are on that cusp of adulthood. There are moments when they are still kids, others where they have a very profound understanding of life and the struggle for meaning in it. This is a film I’ll definitely watch again one day. ★★★½

Assayas’s next feature film was Irma Vep, in 1996. This is a fascinating film, about an aging French film director named René who is filming a new version of an old silent film titled Les Vampires (Irma Vep is obviously an anagram of vampire). René is a heralded director whose best days are unfortunately behind him, and he’s getting to the point where the reputation of his past great films is no longer carrying him. He hires a Hong Kong actress, Maggie Cheung (playing a version of herself), as the lead, based solely on having seen her in a couple films and liking the way she looks. The problem is, she doesn’t speak a lick of French, so is entirely reliant on the people in production who speak English. The film within a film is very artsy and even early in production, doesn’t look like it will be anything good, but René doggedly continues. Outside the film, the viewer sees “behind the curtain” at all of the drama that goes on, including infighting, rumors, press interviews, producer-called changes, etc. There’s a lot of satire about the current state of French film in the mid 90s, which many think isn’t accessible to average movie goers who want more action and less esoteric “high art.” For instance, some laugh at Maggie Cheung’s work with Jackie Chan in Hong Kong, yet those movies obviously made money. I loved this movie; there’s so much going on, so many characters and interactions to keep track of, amidst the hectic “hurry up and wait” life inside film production. Cheung is wonderful, as is a lot of the supporting cast. ★★★★

Jumping ahead a few years to 2008, Summer Hours is great as well, but in a much different way. Whereas Irma Vep was energetic and fun in a rambunctious way, Summer Hours is just a quiet, beautiful, picturesque kind of film. It opens with three adult siblings visiting their mother, Hélène, at her French villa, on her 75th birthday. The entire family is wealthy; each of the kids is successful in his or her own right, but the money started with Hélène’s uncle, who was a famous painter. The oldest of the children, Frédéric, is the only who still lives in Paris. Middle child Adrienne has a career in America, and youngest son Jérémie has just taken a job in China, and neither get back to visit mom very often anymore. Frédéric is definitely the most sentimental; Hélène takes him around the house pointing out all the expensive furniture and art her family must sell when she dies, and he doesn’t want to hear any of it, planning on keeping the house and all its wealth in the family for future generations. When Hélène does die within the year though, his plans are overruled by his sister and brother, with Jérémie in particular wanting money to buy a house in China and a summer home in Bali. The movie left me feeling very nostalgic (I too have aging parents) but also, I think, the director is trying to tell us that we can only truly live if we cast off the inanimate objects that hold us down. There’s a great scene in the end where the house has been sold, and Frédéric’s kids invite a bunch of friends over for a weekend party. His daughter reminisces about her grandmother and the moments they shared in and around the house, and then smiles while she joins her boyfriend. It’s a very touching film. ★★★★½

From the very beginning, I had a hard time connecting with Something in the Air, mostly because I just wanted to punch the lead character in the mouth. In the early 1970s, Gilles is a high school anarchist, protesting various injustices in all the worst ways: spray painting graffiti, attacking school authority figures, rioting against the police, etc. He bounces back and forth between 2 girls, losing the first because he can’t commit, and the second because he isn’t radical enough for her tastes. As the movie plays out, Gilles becomes less interested in revolutionary ideas, and more into his art, as he shows talent at drawing and painting. Unfortunately we never really get to know Gilles as a person; like a lot of high schoolers, he just regurgitates ideas and thoughts he heard or read. The film as a whole is very short on what is actually going on in the heads of our characters. Actually, I just don’t care what is in their heads. The film meanders along with no real point other than telling us how Gilles got from Point A to Point B. The movie is supposedly autobiographical, so that makes sense I guess, but it doesn’t make for very interesting viewing. The first real dud from this director. ★½

Carlos was released before the previous film, but it is also 5 1/2 hours long, so I saved it for the weekend 🙂 Originally released as a three part miniseries, it tells the tale of real-life terrorist Carlos the Jackal. The first episode begins in 1973 and tells of Carlos’s (born Ilich Ramírez Sánchez) rise to influence in various far-left terrorist cells, including the Japanese Red Army, small German Revolutionary cells, and the PLO. Rarely involved in direct conflict, he supplies guns and weapons to these groups and does much of the planning, including a raid on the French Embassy in The Netherlands, and attacks at airports. Eventually, one of his coconspirators is picked up by the authorities in France, who names Ramírez Sánchez under his alias, Carlos Martinez, and even tells them where his current girlfriend lives. They go to the apartment to search for the girl, who isn’t there, but Carlos is. Carlos ends up shooting his way out, and goes into hiding in Yemen for a couple months. When he comes back in late 1975, it is with a vengeance. Part one ends with his latest collaboration with the PFLO, as they are getting ready to attack a conference where the ministers from various member countries of OPEC are meeting. Their intent is to kidnap them and force them to read statements condemning their country’s actions against the State of Palestine.

The second episode picks up right there, with Carlos and his crew on the bus, armed, ready to storm the conference. Until this point, the film has never stayed on one event or moment too long; it has given us little tidbits here and there of Carlos’s comings and goings, but now, finally, we get a good section of film devoted to one event, probably because it is the one that made Carlos an (infamous) celebrity. His group takes the emissaries hostage, and negotiate a plane to take them to Algeria. Things do not go as planned, as once in the air again, no other country will accept them. They are forced to return again to Algeria, but Carlos is able to worm his way out, with a fat check (clandestinely) from the president of Libya, and all parties live to see another day. The rest of the episode is mostly dialogue, as Carlos falls in and out of favor in various groups. It seems to be a slow period in his life.

The final part jumps ahead a couple years, and finds Carlos in Budapest in 1979. He’s at a point in his life where he has the backing of powerful friends in Communist and Socialist governments around the world, and Hungary is sheltering him as long as he doesn’t plan any attacks while in its borders. More of a mercenary and planner now, he’s taking in lots of cash in return for guns, all “in the cause” against imperialist countries, anyone who would subjugate people. When two of his coconspirators are arrested, he puts pressure on the French government to have them released, in the only way he knows: he kills a couple French emissaries by assassination, bombing a train carrying one, and planting a car bomb outside a newspaper on the morning their trial starts. It doesn’t get his friends off, but it does make Hungary’s government come down on him, as they are under pressure from other countries to expel him. This is just the first domino to fall. As the years go by, Carlos continues to lose friends; the fall of the Berlin Wall loses his backers in East Germany, and then Syria and Libya refuse to go against the big powers in the west and also will not admit him. The film winds down as Carlos’s influences continue to dwindle; he is stuck in the only country that will take him, Sudan, until he is finally arrested and imprisoned.

The film is decent, but it suffers the fate that many biographical films do. It is too documentary-like, too much of “Carlos meets with this person” and “Carlos goes here and does this.” The second episode with the single long mission is the best, but many parts of the rest of the film can be a bit dull, which is never a good thing. Even the filmmakers are aware of this, because in slow stretches, they would try to inject energy by having Carlos have sex with a random girl or kill someone, but these come out of left field and don’t bring much to the table. The actors are hit and miss, and while Édgar Ramírez as Carlos is decent, he isn’t allowed to show much range: there’s calm and there’s mad, and that’s about it. When compared to some recent terrorist biopics, like the first couple seasons of Netflix’s Narcos series, Carlos falls flat. I think it could have been better as a shorter, more concise picture, focusing more on the big moments rather than everything. ★★½

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