An Interview with Olivier Assayas
By Eric Hynes
At midnight Olivier Assayas was still going. Looking no worse for wear after a full day of press interviews and the premiere of his new film, Summer Hours, at the New York Film Festival, Assayas held court at a festival-hosted dinner, receiving well-wishers with shy smiles, deep nods, and indiscriminate eye contact. Long after other distinguished guests retired for the night, Assayas leaned forward and joined another conversation. Dressed in a distressed blazer and burnt-orange Adidas sneakers, the 53-year-old French filmmaker could pass for late thirties, his grey hair seemingly premature atop a boyish face. The director, who’s notoriously expansive in his interests and passions, weighed in on film, music, literature, criticism, and politics. Brain wheels spinning, he often doubled back on himself, restarting a sentence several times before proceeding with an extended string of thought. Talk of the news of the day—it was early fall and the depths of world financial crash was only just presenting itself—touched on questions at the heart of Summer Hours. How does one adapt—psychologically, emotionally, financially—to a swiftly changing world?
From his best-known work, the stylish, film-savvy art-house hit Irma Vep (1996), through recent films such as demonlover (2002), Clean (2004), and Boarding Gate (2007), Assayas makes films about transition and transaction in modern life, with characters forced to negotiate shifting borders and strange new rules. Caught in a tightening web of international internet pornography, the protagonist in demonlover starts playing dirty; in Clean, a career junkie attempts to go straight in order to regain custody of her son; in Boarding Gate, a double-crossed vixen proves more resourceful than her would-be killers ever imagined. Each film requires its characters to enter different cultures and speak foreign languages, literalizing challenges of today’s global economy. In Summer Hours, these changes are brought closer to home. An intimate story about a French family negotiating its history and future, it’s Assayas’s most personal film since his bittersweet Late August, Early September (1998). As the earlier film recounted a young artist’s growth in the wake of a friend’s death, Summer Hours has an eldest son coming to terms with his mother’s passing. When his own mother died before filming began on Summer Hours, Assayas briefly considered scratching the whole project. When he decided to continue, he did so with a script revised to reflect some of his own complex emotions about family, legacy, and time.
Reverse Shot: In your press conference you described the characters in Summer Hours as all decent, good people trying their best to do the right things, yet they all make decisions that negatively affect others. That understanding of humanity called to mind a filmmaker that I wouldn’t normally compare to you—John Cassavetes.
Olivier Assayas: Yes, or Renoir. Making movies is a complex process, and I didn’t come to this story by the usual route. I started with the objects in a museum and zoomed back, getting broader and broader. I realized that in order to deal with how objects end up in the museum I’d have to deal with what their life was and how they were sold, how they played a part in the lives of individuals and how gradually they came on the market and from the market ended up in the museum. So I realized I would have to deal with the genre of the sale of the family country house. And of course when you deal with that very simple, universal issue, which of course has a lot to do with mourning, you know that it can be very commonplace, and you have a very strong notion of the stereotypes and trappings of the genre. You are aware of those trappings the same way that individuals involved are aware of those trappings.
The trappings are basically the very commonplace notion that when interest is involved people become ugly. Which is something I don’t believe in, deep, deep inside of me. I am more interested in how people try to deal with difficult situations—situations of crisis and grief—in the most decent possible way. When I’m dealing with this family I want to be close to every single one of them. I want to be able to understand their reasons. If at some point I don’t understand what one of my characters is doing and why, then there’s something flawed about what I’m doing. In theoretical terms I can’t analyze why I’m closer to this or that character in this or that respect, but in human terms I am with them, to me they are the center of the film whenever they are onscreen, and I can share in whatever they are saying. The characters in the film are, hopefully as we are, smart enough to understand that the forces that drive them apart are the forces of the transformation of the world, the transformation of society. And sadly it’s not things that we voted for or against, it just happened. It’s the way the modern world functions. It changes on its own. It changes like the sky changes, and we kind of have to grin and bear it.
RS: Coping with events, living with the aftermath—this is something you also explored in Late August, Early September. Not only, as in Summer Hours, does death happen off-screen, but you cut past the events surrounding the event to the dramas of those still living. You seem more interested in how people adapt and adjust and survive.
OA: Yes, to me the drama of death we all know about it, the shock of it. What is difficult to describe on film is the process that happens inside of you. I’m much more interested in how the dead do survive. In that sense Late August and Summer Hours are similar in that they both deal with what survives of an individual [after death]. In Late August it was how the work of the writer keeps affecting the lives of those who surrounded him. In this film there’s something similar, but pushed a little further. There’s this Chinese saying that goes something like: you die a second time when all the people you’ve known are dead. What remains of art and the artist after two generations?
One of the central characters in Summer Hours is Paul Berthier, and Paul Berthier is long gone. But somehow there’s this house, this shrine, and this person he cared for is keeping it alive, keeping it the way he would have wanted it. There’s something of whoever he was that floats around. And once she’s gone, nothing is left. He becomes another painter in books and museums. The one person who understands what the film is about is Sylvie, the younger girl who basically knows that what’s lost is the soul of her grand-uncle, what’s lost is what is invisible. I suppose it’s something that echoes in me. My grandfather was a famous Hungarian painter, and he died when my mother was very young. She worshipped him. She dealt with his exhibitions, answering the mail. While writing this screenplay I realized that when she passes I wouldn’t care enough [to administrate my grandfather’s legacy]. It’s just not my life. Now that she has passed, the best thing I can do is just put the archives together and lend to museums. It’s one aspect of the film that is both abstract because it’s a reflection of what art is about, but also very personal.
RS: It seems like cinema is almost best suited for approaching this in some ways, because it’s both literally making a record of something, making a memory, while simultaneously making an abstraction, a metaphorical representation. Throughout Summer Hours I was thinking of that scene in Les Destinées when Charles Berling watches Emmanuelle Beart picking fruit, and there’s this sense that this is time out of time, this isn’t necessary the narrative but something wonderful that is happening. There are many similar moments in Summer Hours, an appreciation of every moment whether or not the characters realize what’s happening.
OA: Of course, because cinema is involved with time. You can only represent time by using time. It’s what novels struggle with. Because they have so much space novels can deal in tiny details, but ultimately the emotions we have are visual emotions. We process thoughts and feelings as images. They echo within and stay with us. Cinema has a capacity of capturing those moments. Time is built into film, and you can somehow control the pace of time in a way that you can’t in a novel, because with novels your reader just reads a few pages, puts it back, and picks it up a week later. Cinema’s like a piece of music, it has its own rhythm, its own system of echoes which you control because you know more or less that your viewer is seated in the same theater—though DVDs become a problem because you don’t control what the guy does anymore—but basically the idea is that you can build on the echo of things in time. This film is entirely about that. The film has a billion subjects, but ultimately it has one subject, which is the passage of time.
RS: And you wind up missing things, you’re almost taught to miss things: first you let us discount the importance of what we see—a room, a vase, a character—then when you present its echo you show how we’ve unconsciously longed for it. That’s what’s so powerful about the final scene, because the whole weight of the film rests on Sylvie’s recollection and her understanding of what’s missing, what’s going to be missed, even though she has her whole life ahead of her.
OA: The film is all about things that you haven’t noticed. Things you’ve underestimated or undervalued when you initially were watching. The film keeps on going back on itself. Life’s a loop, a loop within a loop.
RS: Now I want to talk business. Exchange, commodity, financial systems, have been a constant fascination of yours, but you’ve always found a way to localize or personalize these abstract notions. Rather than use characters as illustrations of how business works you do the opposite: you show how business is about and made up of characters and people. Notably, this is the first time that one of your main characters is an actual economist. Yet Frédéric (Charles Berling) is insistent on economics being a philosophy and an art rather than a science. It seems like this is the closest we’ve come to a direct expression of your own worldview.
OA: [Laughs] Of course it’s very difficult to deal with those things. Characters are determined by forces way beyond them. We are dependent on modern ideology—meaning the economy. What I’m saying is very simple. The modern world worships economy and takes it as some kind of truth, but ultimately it’s nothing more than religion because there’s no logic to economy. It’s irrational, deeply irrational. Now I’m not a big theoretician of economics—it’s absolutely not my position. My position is much simpler than that. We just have to be aware that this is not where truth lives. We are free of the values of economy. When politicians tell you that this is for the good of the economy, that this is how the economy goes, etc, they have no idea, and they are usually serving their own interests. And I’m not even discussing the ideology of economy. I don’t care. But it’s important to be aware that it’s an ideology. Ultimately the changes it creates in the way we live, in our values, in the world around us, are not some kind of fatality. It’s something we should have a grasp on. We should be able to think by ourselves if we agree with it or not.
Hopefully people will become aware that they shouldn’t go too far in terms of the abstraction of money. In the last eight years people have been selling bonds of bonds of bonds, and since everything is interconnected suddenly it’s all over the place. The subprimes thing is the same as tainted Chinese milk. You end up having that milk in chocolate bars sold in London, in the same way that you have subprimes everywhere, tiny bits of them everywhere, so that everything is tainted and you don’t know how to deal with it. It’s kind of fascinating, which again has to do with this completely alienated logic of the market today. I’m kind of a believer of old school economics. Economics should be connected to the real world. When it loses its connection to the real word, we’re getting on very dangerous ground. But that’s what has been happening. If people go back to focusing on protecting their business and protecting the people who work for their business—people who are ultimately most important—then I suppose the present crisis could be a good thing. But I sincerely doubt it.
Now someone like Frédéric—he’s a good man, he’s an intellectual, and he has an abstract notion of things. He teaches economy and tries to convey it, but no one’s interested and he kind of knows it. But he doesn’t realize ultimately how it can hit home. He never imagined that the frontline was so close to him.
RS: He’s also so sentimental.
OA: He’s sentimental because he belongs to the old world. When he shows the paintings to his son and daughter he’s not explaining to them why Corot is a great painter, he’s not able to transmit the beauty of those paintings to his children. What he transmits to them is that they are the most ancient layer in the history of the family. He believes in traditional values. He’s a modern character, but he believes in basic things about the relationships you should have with your family, the consciousness of how you are determined by what had been passed on to you by previous generations, and not only by your family but by history and culture. You don’t just pop up, you’re a product of history in your own way. You just have to be aware of it. He’s not only aware of it, he considers himself a transient occupant of this house. What he says to his children might be what his father told him, and he thinks he can pass it on. He’s not an artistic person. I mean he loves the house and he loves the place, but he doesn’t analyze it. He only gradually understands that the world has changed much more than he initially imagined. Someone like his sister Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) has a completely different take. She sees the beauty in things. She knows exactly what she likes, what she doesn’t like, what’s good for her, what’s not good for her. She’s picked this, this, and this and taken it away, where it can inspire her and trigger her art. She’s doing something completely modern, something else. She’s absorbed the past and is translating it in modern terms.
RS: Frédéric thinks that the loss of the house and of these paintings means that his children are not going to get it— that they’re not going to understand that continuity. But his daughter already has a deeper understanding of that continuity.
OA: She understands and ultimately she wants that forever. Because again she’s the one person who understands what it’s all about. That what’s been lost is the beauty of the landscapes that her great-uncle painted. She doesn’t care about the loss of the house and the vases or whatever. It’s like a game because you think that the beauty is in the vase that is taken away by Eloise, but where exactly is the focus? I kind of play with where the focus is. At some point you end up thinking: okay the focus is with the vase, with Eloise, because she will keep it alive, she will put flowers in it, she will love it, and no one will ever hear of the vase again and it will be lost, and it’s great. [Laughs] But ultimately the focus is exactly where Sylvie puts it. It’s with the relationship, with the fact that art deals with the invisible. The soul of someone connects with nature or whatever, and somehow it kinds of floats around. Possibly whatever beauty we see in this house is an echo of what was the vision of one person, and ultimately it is that vision that is the one important thing. She doesn’t know how to formulate it, but she senses it.