Last week, Olivier Assayas delivered the State of Cinema address for the Belgian film website Sabzian. “I have some good news, for everyone: cinema is in crisis,” he began. The transcript is some 7,000 words and dense in parts: Assayas, after all, was a critic for Cahiers du Cinéma before he became a director. One line struck me as revealing: “…as nature has gifted me with a rather contrary spirit, I am left with the feeling that I had to swim against the tide...of instantly forgotten fashions of a drifting cinephile thought…”
It’s difficult to think of a major film-maker who has been as resistant to settling into an identifiable style as Assayas. There are recurring psychological and stylistic preoccupations: unbroken shots with a roving camera, fractured mental states, eclectic soundtracks. Still, to direct films as singular yet disparate as Summer Hours (2008) and Demonlover (2002), Carlos (2010) and Clouds Of Sils Maria (2014), you have to be a contrary spirit, open to the possibility of failure.
Given the paucity of Assayas’ work on streaming platforms in India, the release of his latest film, Wasp Network (2019), on Netflix last week was exciting. The film, however, is a strangely diffused affair. In as much as it’s difficult to say what an “Assayas film” is, this does not feel like one. It‘s about Cuban nationals like pilot René (Édgar Ramírez), who fled their country for Miami in the 1990s and joined organizations working to free Cuba from Fidel Castro. René is joined by Juan (Wagner Moura), who supplements his income by becoming an FBI informant on the groups he’s helping.
Wasp Network twists unpredictably, as characters are revealed as double, then triple, agents. Yet, apart from René’s correspondence with his wife (Penélope Cruz) and daughter back home, it’s hard to find an emotional through-line. Juan vanishes and isn’t spoken of till the end. Gael García Bernal turns up for a while, as a Cuban government mole. A voice-over is introduced mid-film, to no great effect. There are a couple of sublime touches, like the unbroken shot of Ana de Armas dancing her way across a room, or the Hitchcockian sequence with agents planting a bug, their faces never coming into view. Yet it feels like Assayas needed something closer to the running time of Carlos—his almost 6-hour film/miniseries starring Ramírez as terrorist Carlos the Jackal—to bring order to this packed but rather formless story.
Wasp Network might be many viewers’ introduction to Assayas. Where should you go from there? It really depends on the sort of film experience you are looking for. Fans of perverse techno-thrillers can try Demonlover, set against the backdrop of the anime porn business, or the neonoir Boarding Gate (2007). Carlos is his biggest canvas, a sprawling, elusive work involving a complex tapestry of 1970s insurrectionary politics. Or you can zoom in with Summer Hours, a film in the venerable French tradition of people just sitting around and talking.
There are the autobiographical films Cold Water (1994) and Something In The Air (2012), with their young protagonists trying to find themselves in the aftermath of 1968, as Assayas once did. And there are the films he made with Kristen Stewart in Europe, at a time when she was still the star from the Twilight movies. She gives intuitive, nervy performances as the assistant to a famous actor (Juliette Binoche) in the meta-textual Clouds Of Sils Maria, and a buyer of clothes for the super-wealthy in Personal Shopper (2016), who starts suspecting her dead twin brother is sending her messages from the afterlife.
Or you could start with the one I did, his cult 1996 title, Irma Vep. The film, about a Hong Kong movie star (Maggie Cheung, sort of playing herself), cast in a remake of the silent French serial Les Vampires, is a good introduction to the many moods of Assayas: It has fetishism, nods to experimental film, ruminations on art and commerce, but also moments of human connection. It also has a cracking, eclectic soundtrack—Sonic Youth, Ali Farka Touré, Serge Gainsbourg.
There’s a specific image that Assayas returns to in three of his films: a group of young people who have taken over a country house, drinking and taking drugs, playing music and partying. In Cold Water and Something In The Air, these scenes are simultaneously destructive and introspective, a post-1968 frame of mind. In Summer Hours, things are different. The house is being sold and the teenage daughter has called her friends over to party. She steals away from the group with her boyfriend, unburdens her fears about everything changing. Then she takes him by the hand and starts to run, saying, “I don’t want them to find us.” It’s another Assayas motif, from Irma Vep to Carlos, Personal Shopper, Something In The Air and Wasp Network—the desire to outrun one’s circumstances, to escape or disappear.