In the promotional copy for TIFF's upcoming Olivier Assayas retrospective, Something in the Air, the French filmmaker is bestowed a provocative label: "Cinema's greatest punk-rock poet." It's the same description the Brooklyn Academy of Music used to classify the unclassifiable Assayas when it hosted its own retrospective back in 2010, but it's a misleading one. Sure, Assayas could be described in such cutely anarchic terms, insomuch as he's a rogue element in the film world who cannot be tamed by conventional genres or expectations.
But reducing Assayas to such neat labels diminishes his remarkable, bewildering career, one that's stretched the medium until it snaps in half. It takes some suspension of disbelief, for instance, to reconcile the fact that the same man can make both 2002's manga-obsessed erotic corporate thriller Demonlover and last year's tender ode to grief, Personal Shopper. Or that the mind behind the 1996 surreal industry satire Irma Vep can also conjure the five-hour-plus terrorism miniseries Carlos. But such is the way of Assayas, whose global cinema has transfixed audiences for four decades now. Ahead of TIFF's summer-long series, The Globe and Mail spoke with the 62-year-old auteur about how, if at all, one could connect the dots of his filmography.
Having a retrospective of your work, it's happened before. But is it an intimidating prospect?
It's an honour, of course, but what I get the most pleasure from is the idea that all my films are shown together. Because as much as I always get the impression that people are surprised by the movies I make, that I went in this direction or that, it's so different from what I've always been doing. Ultimately, I've been making movies the way a novelist writes his novel. I've always had a feeling that all my movies are interconnected in more ways than one. What fascinates me is the complexity of the world and the complexity of our perception of the world. We're connected with the present, the past, the future, with our own private lives, with our imagination. What drives my films is that richness, the multiplicity of the human experience, but with each new one, to change the angle, to change the perspective. So the fact that some people will be watching my films in a short span of time, that means they will hopefully see the connections, where they were less evident when the films were initially released. Possibly they will make more sense then.
Have you ever had that sensation yourself, when looking back on your own filmography?
Not really, because I hate watching my films again.
I take no pleasure in it. I've always had this fantasy that I would be able to watch my films as if I was an audience member, but every single film I made reminds me of those specific moments in my life. I thought that after enough time has passed, it would be better, but it stays with you always. You lose the genuine connection to the total idea of the film.
So you're not overly concerned with underlining thematic links from film to film?
I'm not thinking in terms of theme because, ultimately, I'm interested in the human experience in its diversity. When I make movies, what I'm trying to explore is something I've never explored before. To experiment with something I've never experimented with before. I need to have that sense, in every movie, that I'm going one step further. It allows me to learn something about the world I did not know before, or I learn something about ways of filmmaking I wasn't comfortable with before. It's always a path of discovery, and I'd much rather do that than consciously go from theme to theme.
What did you learn, then, from your most recent projects, Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper?
I think that, in both movies, I've been able to touch on something that was a little bit of a puzzle in my films so far, which is the supernatural. In a certain way, both films are ghost stories, and I think these genre elements help me communicate with the subconcious ideas there.
While on the subject of Clouds and Personal Shopper, what do you look for in a regular collaborator such as Juliette Binoche, who you've partnered with for five films, and Kristen Stewart, now up to two?
It's a form of complicity, and friendship. Using an actor again, there's a pleasure you gain, because you feel they understand the way you think. It's also a matter of being mutually beneficial – it has to be. With both Juliette and Kristen, I had the opportunity with Clouds of Sils Maria to give them something they had not really been doing in films before. With Juliette, while writing Clouds, I was thinking, "What can I offer her that she has not explored yet?" I realized she had never played herself, or a version of herself. It was similar with Kristen. She has always been a remarkable actress, but I was the one person who was able to tell her it was okay to be herself, to play off her own character.
It's fascinating to watch, as we're then able to witness a performance that exists so outside of their career paths so far. It feels similar to your work with Maggie [Cheung].
With Maggie, it was even more obvious in the sense that she existed in a paradox: She's British, grew up in England and was not overly familiar with Hong Kong culture when she moved there as a teenager – yet she had never acted in English before Irma Vep. Maggie was a very exceptional opportunity for me when I realized she was a superstar in Asian cinema, but I could give her something that she had never had yet, her first English-speaking role. After Irma Vep, we deepened our relationship and we were married, back then, but it was fascinating to watch. Because when you're a superstar in Chinese cinema, not remotely known in Europe and the U.S. … now that's changed. You have a whole generation of performers now, say, who are Asian superstars but are also known by Western audiences.
Your films do seem to be preoccupied by transnational characters. Is this globalized culture a positive thing, then?
I have no idea if it's positive or negative. I tend to focus on the better side of things, because you have so much more communication in film culture, much more so than when I was a journalist writing for Cahiers du cinema. There were such big holes in the cinema then. Chinese cinema was virtually unknown. People had no idea what was going on in Korea or Thailand. The map of cinema has expanded, and there has been a strong influence on the aesthetics of Western cinema. There's a dialogue now that wasn't there before.
But working for Cahiers, you likely had even greater access than the average French moviegoer, I imagine.
I feel very lucky, yes. As a very young man, I didn't go to film school. I instead had the opportunity to work on screenplays with friends, work on short films, work as a film journalist. All of a sudden, it opened doors for me. It was the moment when the map was expanding, so I could go to Rotterdam, I could go to Berlin, and those places were showing a lot of cinema I never had access to [in France]. I was lucky at a very young age to be aware of that, about that transnational scene.
Going back to your desire to experiment – what's that next experiment for you?
I've written a screenplay for what will be my next film, which I'll be shooting in the fall. It's very, very, very dialogue-heavy. Very.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Something in the Air: The Cinema of Olivier Assayas runs June 22 through Aug. 20 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto; Assayas will introduce several screenings, including Cold Water on June 22 (tiff.net)