Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Eclectic and Provocative World of Olivier Assayas

Of all the many talented filmmakers working in France today, none is as eclectic and adventurous as Olivier Assayas. From his 1986 debut film, the psychologically daring Désordre / Disorder) (1986), wherein a group of musicians accidentally commit a murder and then try to cope with the stark reality of what they’ve done, to his superb ‘romance’ about young star crossed lovers,  1994’s L’eau froide / Cold Water, Assayas quickly staked out a terrain where you could be sure of only one thing: he would not make the same movie twice. His oeuvre includes genre exercises that pay tribute to Hong Kong and French cinema (1996’s inventive Irma Vep), descents into horror (2002’s disturbing Demonlover), provocative intellectual dramas (1998’s Fin août, début septembre / Late August, Early September), emotional elegies (2008’s L'heure d'été / Summer Hours), a story about a junkie trying to kick her habit (2004’s gritty Clean) and even a lush costume epic (2000’s Les destinées sentimentales). In his career, Assayas has displayed an unique breadth and range of filmmaking styles and genres, with possibly only Briton Michael Winterbottom (Code 46, Genoa, The Road Trip) rivaling him in that department.

That decision never to repeat himself is a deliberate one, he said, during a wide-ranging interview in Toronto to promote his latest film, Carlos, the true story of the infamous terrorist known in the West as Carlos the Jackal.

Édgar Ramírez as Carlos
The movie is an astounding five and half hour opus that continues to display Assayas’s surprising unpredictable bent. (Carlos grips you from its first scene until its powerful and declarative conclusion. I didn’t fidget for a second, which is quite amazing for a movie of this great length.) It tracks the life and deeds of the infamous Venezuelan-born terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, aka Carlos, beginning in 1973 when he began to attract worldwide attention with his violent actions in support of the Palestinian cause, and culminating in his infamous and daring attack on the OPEC oil ministers meeting in 1975 in Vienna. Carlos depicts a time that has similarities to our own, but is also significantly different from the present. “The 1970s is a different world,’ said Assayas. “The interconnections are based on the major differences in geopolitics, which is basically that the 1970s are about the Cold War so the dividing line [then] is somewhere else… Now you still have a dividing line… it has just moved.”

The geopolitical angle of the film is one part of a complex, terrifically exciting and remarkably detailed drama. The story explores Carlos’s place in the worldwide terrorist network and his gradual decline into irrelevancy in the 1980s as his backers, who included at various times, Palestinians, Iraqis, Syrians and Iranians, began to wash their hands from him after the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Carlos, which Assayas co-wrote with Dan Franck, from an idea by producer Daniel Leconte, was originally made for French television, where it showed in May /June 2010 in three weekly installments, and will play around the world in both its full version and Assayas’s specially prepared 2 hour, 30 minutes ‘director's cut.’ (Ironically, the full cut will play in all the world’s movie houses, except for those in France, where its television broadcast precludes a theatrical run.) Sitting in a Toronto hotel room where he was going to introduce a sneak preview of the film on October 4,  before the movie’s commercial release on October 21st in its longer incarnation, the casually dressed, soft spoken 55-year-old Assayas discoursed comfortably about the film, politics and his philosophy when it comes to making movies.

In a breakout performance, the little known Venezuelan actor Édgar Ramírez (The Bourne Ultimatum, Che), portrays Carlos as enigmatic, charming, mercurial, vicious and, finally more than a little lost. “Carlos evolves [and] changes through the years,” said Assayas. “What is interesting…for me from the human point of view is there is something universal in how he evolves, in the sense that you have a young man who has some kind of mixture of brutality and ideals but the ideals are there, he has beliefs, he thinks he’s doing something that is useful or is good. In the 1970s, there were a million guys like him, but not all (of them) killed.”

Carlos, as portrayed in the film, is a true believer but not someone who is a monolithic figure, which is what attracted Assayas to the idea of making the movie. “One of the aspects [of the story] that of course interested me…in terms of writing it, is that he is a different person at different moments in his life. At a certain point, his idealism becomes pragmatism, he becomes involved in action. He’s not an intellectual, he’s not a writer, he’s not a theoretician, an action has to do with pragmatism. When you’re in action, you’re never at the core of whatever your idealism is about, it makes you move on.” In fact, as the film progresses, Carlos comes across as less of a true believer and more someone who is just mouthing the phrases that are expected from him. “From pragmatism to cynicism, there’s just one more tiny step [and] of course he will walk that step pretty early, which has to do with both his personality and with the times changing,” said Assayas.

So how do the realities of terrorism, and its present-day practitioners in general, differ from Carlos and his like? “The way I see it,” said Assayas, “terrorists are foot soldiers; they are guys that higher powers use for their own ends, which are geopolitical ends. So in the 70s, you recruited these foot soldiers among believers of the Marxist faith. They were Marxist militants, international Marxist militants, and they were convinced that the Revolution was at hand. [T]hey [the handlers] did not promise them eternal life in some kind of abstract heaven. They promised … the hope that they were involved in building some kind of better society, even if they did not exactly believe that, [they] at least pretended that they did." That was something the director himself believed for a time. “I was a teenager [then], it was often my world view.”

One new factor in contemporary terrorism: Islamism. “Today, I think we went just one step further in terms of cynicism, meaning that the heads, the politicians who utilize terrorism are….using religion to motivate their soldiers and they make them believe that they will go to heaven and be honoured by their society and family,” Assayas explained. “Basically, they don’t have any second thoughts about just using them and having them blow themselves up – the invented notion of martyrdom – martyrdom was not part of the deal in the 1970s.” (A key scene in the film where Carlos justifies not giving up his life during a mission, bolsters Assayas’s view.) Otherwise, Assayas added, “it’s not much of an important difference [from then to now], looking at it, it’s just a matter of the brutality of the leaders [but] in terms, ultimately, of what terrorism is about, as a political tool, as a geopolitical tool. I don’t think things have changed so much.”

Filming Carlos, which spans twenty-plus years in the terrorist’s life, ranged across 16 countries and dialgoue was spoken in nearly a dozen languages, was obviously a tremendous undertaking. It was made more impressively so by the fact that Assayas and company were scrupulous in getting their facts right, and didn’t indulge in any fictionalization of the details. (The filmmaker chose only to dramatize the actual events where Carlos was witnessed carrying out terrorist acts; other actions, such as the 1975 fatal Rue Marbeuf bombing of a Jewish-owned drugstore, which was likely carried out by Carlos but which no one actually saw him commit, is represented by TV news footage from that time.)

In fact, because of a legal injunction, Assayas could not even show Johannes Weinrich, one of Carlos’s German cohorts, parking the car which contained the bomb that blew up the drugstore. Because of a technicality – “The French did not send to the German judge the right documents at the right time and so on and so forth” – Weinrich was acquitted of that crime when he went to trial in Germany, a fact which constrained Assayas when it came time to shoot that scene. “I filmed the whole scene with Weinrich parking the car bomb but I was not allowed to use it because he had been acquitted. The lawyer did not allow me to show him, so when I filmed the guy who parks the car bomb in Rue Marbeuf, I only show his back, I could only use that shot.”

Assayas is perturbed that the Rue Marbeuf bombing hasn’t even gone to trial yet in the country where it actually occurred. “It’s supposed to go on trial in France next year, why is it not [yet] going on trial? The cynical answer, he said, is “because if you pull the thread, you don’t get Carlos, you get the Syrians, and the French don’t want to alienate the Syrians. They’re trying to somehow bring back the Syrians into some kind of negotiation (in the Middle East peace process).” The French government, deservedly, doesn't come across too well in Carlos; even knowing the history of that era, I was struck by how quickly and readily it, and other Western governments, gave in to most of the terrorists' demands.

Olivier Assayas's Summer Hours
Assayas’s interest in other cultures and countries, evident in many of his films, is inextricably tied into his own philosophy of making movies and the challenges involved in putting them together. “First thing for me, cinema is about exploring the world, it’s something that allows you to expand your knowledge and your vision of the world and it’s what is exciting for me …Ultimately, I make movies that are more personal, more intimate somehow, more autobiographical and once I’ve made them, I have the …urge to open up again.”

His receptivity to so many varied kinds of movies and genres stems, he said, from his constant need to test himself as a filmmaker. “To me, there is something specifically exciting with the notion of doing something I don’t know how to do. I’ve always had this notion that for me movies have to be challenging, I have to be scared [and] and if I’m not scared before making a film, it’s boring.”

Since boring is the last word you’d ever think of when viewing any of Olivier Assayas’s films, even the relatively few that don’t work, let’s hope he continues to be scared for many years to come.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He'll be teaching a course on significant contemporary film directors this fall at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute.

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