Olivier Assayas

(Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )

7.1 Irma Vep (1996)
6.0 Last August Early September (1998)
7.0 Les Destinees (2000)
6.8 Demonlover (2002)
6.8 Clean (2004)
7.0 Boarding Gate (2007)
6.4 Summer Hours (2008)
6.6 Carlos (2010)
6.4 Something in the Air (2012)
7.1 Clouds of Sils Maria (2015)
7.2 Personal Shopper (2016)
7.1 Doubles Vies/ Non-fiction (2018)
6.5 Wasp Network (2020)

Olivier Assayas

Desordre/ Disorder (1986)

L'Enfant de l'Hiver/ Winters Child (1989)

Paris s'Eveille/ Paris Awakens (1991)

Une Nouvelle Vie/ A New Life (1993)

L'Eau Froid/ Cold Water (1994)

Irma Vep (1996) is an odd meditation on cinema, and on French cinema in particular, a semi-satirical movie about making an art movies filmed with a very nervous hand-held camera. First a director hires a Chinese actress to play the role of an iconic French character, but then the director goes mad and the new director fires the Chinese actress and replaces her with her French stuntwoman, who is not a real actress but at least she's French. The new director, however, is also somehow a metaphor: he has been unemployed for a long time.

A busy office is working on a new film, an art film. Enters a Chinese actress, Maggie Cheung (playing herself), who has just arrived after a 12-hour flight. She is supposed to meet with the director, Rene', but Rene' is out that day. (First thing, she asks to smoke a cigarette, of course). She talks briefly about the film she just finished filming in Hong Kong. The production manager takes her to see Rene'. Then suddenly we start seeing a Chinese martial-arts film that features her as the heroine. It's Rene' watching it. It is showing it to her. He explains why he picked her for the part of Irma Vep and shows her old footage about the character, a masked thief wearing a black catsuit that appeared in Louis Feuillade's silent black-and-white serial "Les Vampires". Shooting begins, with both Maggie and a stuntwoman called Laure playing the thief in a catsuit. The director intends the remake to be a faithful silent black-and-white production. The whole crew watches what has been filmed. Rene' is not happy and walks out cursing the crew, upsetting in particular cinematographer Markus. Everybody leaves and they forget Maggie behind. Costume designer Zoe gives her a ride on her motorcycle to the place where the crew is watching Chris Marker's agit-prop film "Classe de Lutte" (1969). Zoe tells her friend Mireille, Markus' wife, that she likes Maggie: Mireille knows that Zoe is a lesbian, and wants to help her to seduce Zoe. Mireille asks Maggie directly if she's lesbian too, and Maggie is surprised and unsure what to answer. The police are called to Rene's house because he acted violently with his wife just when Maggie is coming to see him. Rene' tells Maggie about his idea for the film but then collapses because the police force him to take calming pills. At the hotel she wears the Irma Vep catwoman costume and waits for a maid to open the room of a US woman, then she sneaks inside. The woman, naked, is on the phone with her lover, having an argument. Zoe steals her necklace and silently walks out. Then she walks up to the roof. It's raining. She throws the necklace from the roof. In the morning Maggie oversleeps and Zoe has to ask a hotel clerk to open the door in order to wake her up. The crew films a scene in which Irma Vep has to climb over roofs. We see the catwoman performing acrobatic moves on the roof, but it is not Maggie: it's Laure. A journalist interviews Maggie and criticizes French intellectual cinema, including Rene' (and, indirectly, Assayas himself who used to write for "Cahiers du Cinema" before becoming a director). Meanwhile, Rene' has disappeared and his wife is clueless. Zoe learns from Laure that the crew is gossiping about her and Maggie after Zoe gave another ride home to Maggie. Rene' secretary warns Maggie that Zoe can be dangerous: she turned an actress into a junkie. An unemployed director, Jose, is called to replace Rene'. He has lunch with Laure and tells her that Rene' suffered a nervous breakdown and is hospitalized in a mental asylum. Jose thinks that it was pure madness on Rene's part to hire a Chinese woman to play the role of a quintessential working-class French girl, and offers the role of Irma Vep to Laure. Maggie finds Rene' and she is the only one to think that he is perfectly sane. Laure takes her to a dance party but Maggie at the last moment prefers to go home. The studio has already planned for her to return to Hong Kong but instead she flies to Los Angeles to meet with a famous director. Jose and the crew sit down to watch what Rene' had edited so far: what we see is a chaotic sequence of surrealistic images, particularly strange filaments and geometric shapes coming out of or hiding Maggie' eyes.

Late August Early September (1998), one of his best,

Demonlover (2002)

The period film Les Destinees Sentimentales (2000) is an adaptation of a Jacques Chardonne novel.

Clean (2004) is an old-fashioned melodrama. While professionally crafted, the film feels somehow false. There is no sense of real despair and decay in the scenes that depict (or try to depict) the decadent milieu of the music business. The story feels cold and didactic as it documents the protagonist's rise from the gutters. The only moments of authenticity come with the grandfather figure. He stands out as a giant in a movie of mediocre characters.

Lee and Emily (Maggie Cheung) were briefly rock stars but they have been largely forgotten. They and their manager check into a Canadian motel and then enter a club where a sexy blond is performing with her band. The manager has an argument with Emily, who refuses to accept the fact that's no longer a star. When the concert is over, the manager chats with the sexy blond, an old friend of Lee, who is surprised that Lee is still wasting his time with Emily. The manager replies that Lee is too much into drugs. Back at the motel Emily buys drugs and has an argument with Lee, who is an anxious middle-aged man aware that they latest recording is mediocre and that's why the record label doesn't want to release it. She leaves the motel room in the middle of the night, stops in a parking lot, takes drugs, sleeps in the car till dawn. When she returns to the motel, the police are there: Lee died of a drug overdose. She gets arrested for drug possession. The manager comes to visit her to tell her that now the label wants to release the album because Lee's death is good publicity, and the money will pay for her debts and her lawyer, but he never wants to see her again (he knows that she's the one who bought the drugs that killed Lee).
Meanwhile two police officers went to talk to an enderly man, and he told his wife something terrible, and they (Albrecht and Rosemary) are taking care of a little child named Jay: those are Lee's parents, and Jay is Emily's son. WHen Emily gets out of jail, she visits Albrecht and gladly accepts that the court has assigned her son to the grandparents instead of her. Not only that: Albrecht asks Emily not to see the boy for several years to give the boy a chance to grow up in peace.
She leaves for Paris, where she used to live before meeting Lee. She takes a job in a restaurant run by a friend but she is permanently intoxicated and eventually loses her job. A friend, Jean-Pierre, is trying to put her in touch with her old friend Alexis, but they find him dead (probably another overdose) in his apartment. Emily is also relying on Alexis to get her in touch with rock star Tricky: Emily hopes that Tricky can convince Jay's grandparents to let her get custody of Jay, but Tricky ignores her. Meanwhile, she's been trying to get a job with her old boss at a television station, but the only one who cares for her is the secretary, Sandrine, who was a fan of her show six years earlier when still a teenager and still has fantasies about her.
Albrecht is in London to authorize the release of three albums of Lee's music. His wife gets sick and is hospitalized, forcing him and the boy to prolong their stay in London. Albreacht and his wife obviously love each ther very much and he's very worried about her illnes.
Sandrine's boss Irene is an old friend but knows her well enough to know that Emily would not stop doing drugs. Irene admits she's in love with Sandrine, who was her lesbian lover for a while. Now Irene is jealous that Sandrine left her for another woman. In fact, Irene locked Sandrine in her bathroom before leaving the apartment. Sandrine leaves furious with Emily. At Sandrine's place Emily admits that she used to be Irene's lovers before she met Lee.
Albrecht calls Emily, and tells his wife about it. His wife hates her and would rather not talk about her, but he reminds her that they are getting old and some day they won't be there anymore for Jay. ALbrecht accepts to come and see her in Paris and to take the boy with him, and doesn't tell his wife who would never approve. Emily realized that she needs to change life if she ever wants to get Jay back. Her connections pay off and she is hired by a boutique. Now she's excited that she's going to see Jay again. She loves the boy. What she doesn't know is that the boy hates her because his granma kept telling him that she killed Lee: Jay believes his mother killed his father. When they arrive in Paris, the boy refuses to see her and she is devastated. Albreacht talks to Jay man to man and finally Jay accepts to spend a day alone with his mother. Emily takes Jay to the zoo. The boy tells them why he hates her. The boy also knows that his granma is dying. She tries to explain to him how much she loves him. And she succeeds so well that Jay is ready to leave with her for San Francisco, where she has been offered a unique opportunity to restart her singing career. She is ready to steal the child, breaking the word she gave to Albrecht, but Albrecht happens to catch them just when Jay is picking up his passport from the hotel. Instead of being upset that she betrayed him, Albrecht congratulates her on the decision to quit her boutique job but offers her a different deal: she can go to San Francisco but leave the boy with him until his wife dies, and then they will rebuild their lives together. She accepts.

Boarding Gate (2007) is an adaptation of a novel by Jacques Chardonne.

L'Heure D'Ete/ Summer Hours (2008) is an elegant ensemble piece, a Bergman-ian portrait of the cosmopolitan and elegant bourgeoisie in the age of globalization.

Children are playing outdoors. Their parents conveved on this country house to celebrate granma Helene's 75th birthday. Gifts are opened. The country house used to belong to to Helene's uncle, a dead painter, and Helene is now curating a traveling exhibition of his paintings that will start in the USA and reach Europe. Helene's children are Frederic, the eldest and the only one still living in France, an economist a writer, Adrienne, a product designer who works in New York, and Jeremie, who works for a sportswear company and runs their Chinese office. Jeremie works for a sportswear company and runs their Chinese office. Helene inquires why he needs to make them there. Adrienne criticizes him for employing cheap labor to make cheap sneakers. Jeremie has a wife, Angela, and three children. Helene tells Frederic that she started thinking about a future without her and wants Frederic to commit to managing the house after she dies. She has prepared a sort of inventory of the historical furniture of the house: some of the pieces are even wanted by museums. She also show him unpublished notes of her uncle. She wants Frederic to sell all the items because it will be pointless to keep them in an abandoned house after she's dead. Frederic's wife shares her concern that the house will be abandoned because the other siblings live far away. Helene's maid and chef Eloise tells Frederic that Helene is depressed and has memory lapses. The children and their families depart and Helene is alone with Eloise, reflecting that stories and secrets of the past don't interest anybody anymore. Frederic is interviewed about his book, in which he argues that economics is not a science. Suddenly, Helene is dead and Frederic has to pick a spot for her in the cemetery of the village. The children are reunited for the funeral. We learn that the death happened right after the opening of the traveling exhibition. The siblings argue because Adrienne and Jeremie think that Helene had a relationship with her uncle, whereas Frederic gets offended at the insinuation. Frederic tells his siblings that he would like to keep the house as it is, with Eloise in charge of maintaining it, and they can use it as a vacation house. Jeremie and Angela object that they won't be able to come back to France in the next five years. In fact, they need money to purchase a home in China. Adrienne is getting married to her boyfriend James in New York. Her career is in that country and she doesn't plan to return to France more than once in a year. They meet with a lawyer to discuss how to split the inheritance: the paintings and all valuable items will have to be donated to museums otherwise they would be taxed for them, and the house will be sold and the profit shared equally. ELoise will retire and will move in with relatives. Frederic and Jeremie have a coffee together and argue about their father, who had a simple job unlike Helene's uncle, and perhaps wasn't loved as much by Helene as she loved her uncle. Frederic shows the house to an old friend of his mother (a museum official) and he confirms Adrienne's suspecion that Helene and her uncle were in a relationship when they were children. Eloise tells Frederic that Helene had no doubt that the house would be sold. Frederic's daughter gets arrested for shoplifting and the cops also found drugs in her purse. He bails her out but then hardly scolds her for the crime. She also confesses that she has a boyfriend. At home his son tells him that her boyfriend called and asked to dispose of drugs. Frederic and his wife visit the museum where Helene's furniture is displayed. Frederic notices that objects in a museum lose their meaning: an empty vase is not like a vase with flowers on a living room table. Eloise walks back to the house alone to enjoy the garden one last time. She browses inside the house from the windows and she brings flowers to Helene's tomb. The country house is about to being sold. Frederic's kids throw a party at the country house and dozens of kids show up on motorcycles. The kids smoke pot and play loud music. Some of them swim in the nearby river. Frederic's daughter Sylvie is suddenly nostalgic and cries thinking that her granma is dead and the house will be sold, but it's just a second.

Carlos (2010) was a three-part miniseries about a celebrated terrorist of the 1970s, Carlos the Jackal.

Apres Mai/Something in the Air (2012)

Clouds of Sils Maria (2015)

Personal Shopper (2016) is two thrillers in one: it is a supernatural thriller about ghosts communicating with the living and a crime thriller about a murderer who takes advantage of the superstitions of a naive girl who believes in ghosts to get away with murder and frame her. The ending seems to suggest that the supernatural thriller was all imagined, it all happened in her traumatized mind.

Lara drops Maureen at an isolated countryside villa. Then Lara leaves because the villa evokes bad memories. That night Maureen, alone in the big villa, feels an otherworldly "presence". The following day Lara and Maureen talk to a couple that wants to buy the villa from Lara, but want Maureen, a medium, to find out if the spirits in the house are benevolent or not. They tell Maureen about Hilma af Klimt, who painted abstract pictures influenced by her belief in the otherworld. Maureen watches a documentary on the painter. Then she does some shopping in expensive stores. It turns out that Maureen, a young girl from the USA, and works as a "personal shopper" in Paris for a famous fashion model, Kyra. She picks up the expensive garments. On the way home she learns of Victor Hugo's seances and watches a documentary on that subject. Her boyfriend Gary calls her from Oman, where he is working as a consultant for the US embassy, and reminds her that she's been in Paris for three months already. She tells him that she wants to go back to the villa. A doctor's visit informs us that her twin brother Lewis died of a heart attack and that she shares the same heart condition. Maureen then delivers what she picked up at Kyra's place and would like to pick up some of her own clothes, but Kyra is busy on the phone. Maureen then chats with Kyra's lover, Ingo; they are having an affair behind the back of Kyra's husband. Maureen tells him of Lewis. She tells him that Lewis was a medium too, and that they promised each other that whoever died first would send a sign to the other one. Now she is waiting for the sign. And now we understand that the villa is where her twin brother died. She spends another night there. Weird things happen overnight: someone opens faucets in different rooms, then a white ghost floats around, then a terrible woman appears vomiting ectoplasm. She runs away, knowing that this is not a sign from Lewis. The following morning she has to take the train to London in order to pick up some expensive dresses for Kyra. On the way to the station she receives a message on the phone from someone who knows her. He talks to her on the phone the whole trip and she can't resist replying even if he doesn't reveal his identity. He seems to toy with her insecurity and psychoanalyzes her. For a minute she suspects it could be Lewis. Back in Paris, she knows that Kyra is out of town and decides to sleep at her place. She wears one of Kyra's expensive dresses and masturbates herself. She falls asleep on Kyra's bed. In the morning she returns to her apartment to find a letter from the mysterious stalker with the key of a hotel room. She tells Lara that the ghost of the villa, whoever she was, is gone forever. Lara tells her that she has a new boyfriend, a friend of a friend, who knew Lewis. Maureen asks Lara details about Victor Hugo's seances. Hugo communicated via a sort of Morse code: one thump on the floor for "yes", two taps for "no". She watches again the documentary on Hugo's seances while she wears one of Kyra's expensive dresses. Then she goes to the hotel room. The mysterious stalker is not there but he keeps sending her messages and asks her to take a selfie and send it to her, and she does. Later she has to buy jewelry for Kyra and heads to her place to drop the clothes and the jewelry. She finds blood all over Kyra's bed and Kyra's dead body in a closet. She freaks out after hearing noises in the bedroom and runs away but then calls the police. She tells the police that she dropped boxes of jewelry but the jewelry is nowhere to be found. She calls her boyfriend in Oman but doesn't want to talk about the murder. Then she finds the jewelry in her own closet: someone planted it there. The stalker texts her that he is on his way to her apartment, and keeps texting as he approaches it, but then only leaves a note under her door: another hotel room, and she is to bring the jewelry. Maureen does as instructed. She doesn't see that an elevator door opens, the elevator descends to the first floor, the door opens again, then the sliding door of the front also opens, as if a ghost had just left. Ingo picks up the jewelry and leaves the hotel, but outside the police arrest him. (It is not clear if Maureen alerted the police to the meeting or if the police found out some other way). Maureen casually tells Lara that Ingo confessed and the case is closed: now we know that the stalker was simply Ingo toying with Maureen's superstitions. Maureen spends the night at Lara's place and meets Lara's new boyfriend, Erwin, who has fond memories of Lewis, and knows that Lewis was a convinced medium. Erwin feels Lewis' presence among them. Maureen, alone, doesn't see that a glass floats in the air. She only hears it crash on the floor and thinks that the dog must have touched it: she missed the Lewis' sign. She takes a plane to Oman, where Gary has organized a nice week of vacation. She arrives before him. Alone in the hotel room, this time she sees the floating glass before it falls and breaks. She asks questions and hears taps on the floor that she interprets as "yes" and "no" answers. But then the answers become confused and contradictory. She concludes that it is not Lewis' ghost talking to her. Then she asks herself if it's just her imagining all of this, and she hears one thump, which stands for "yes".
(Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )