News and Commentary – On Olivier Assayas

Is Olivier Assayas our greatest living director? If we believed in such pronouncements here at Mid Century Cinema, we could see the argument in favor. But we don’t. More to the point, as we found ourselves screening his films repeatedly (and, like Kubrick films, they invariably get better with each viewing), and musing about this prospect, it seemed long past the time to discuss his work here.

Assayas (like the greats of the French New Wave in the 1950s), was a critic before he became a filmmaker. He then made his early reputation in the movies as a screenwriter—Rendez-vous (1985), his first feature, made Juliette Binoche a star and helped director André Téchiné take home the Best Director Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Assayas swiftly turned his attention to directing, but he never let go of writing. In addition to penning the screenplays for his own films, he occasionally keeps his hand in elsewhere, working on the script for Alice and Martin (which reunited Téchiné and Binoche) and Roman Polanski’s forthcoming Based on a True Story.

Assayas’ films are a very disparate bunch, as illustrated by these examples: Irma Vep (1996), inspired by the silent French Horror Classic Les Vampires, is a movie about movies (perhaps a Day for Night for the 90s, with more of an edge); Les Destinees (2000) serves up a quiet period piece about the romantic longings of a porcelain factory owner; Boarding Gate (2007) is a frenetic international thriller featuring Asia Argento as a kink-friendly woman continent-hopping on the run. But common themes and motifs nevertheless weave their way through Assayas’ work. Nobody, and I mean nobody, films two people on a train, or many people sharing a meal, like he does—and it is a thrill to be a fly on the wall in either of those settings, which one savors when they inevitably appear. And even though the subject matter varies widely, as A O Scott noted in a top-shelf essay, Assayas’ films are often concerned, in one way or another, with the social consequences of what we’ve come to call globalization: radical interconnectedness, rapid movement, and the shattering of boundaries and traditions.

For more on Assayas, thoughtful interviews can be found here and here. But also watch this space. Having nominated him for the pantheon, we anticipate writing more on particular films in future posts. For the moment, a few words about our (current) top five, in chronological order:

Late August, Early September (1998) is a moody and complex story of a fortyish writer and his circle of friends. Featuring François Cluzet and Mathieu Amalric – and several others who would appear in future efforts – like most Assayas films, it is a film full of brilliant, subtle observations, complex interpersonal relationships, and one that poses challenging questions without suggesting easy answers.   

Clean (2004) with Maggie Cheung (who won the best actress award at Cannes for her efforts) and Nick Nolte (outstanding), explores the literal and figurative rehabilitation of a once-big-time rock star fallen on hard times and confronted with new responsibilities. Finely stylized, it studiously avoids the clichés often associated with such stories, offering equal parts wisdom and uncertainty.

Summer Hours (2008), is, simply put, a great movie, with a depth and meaning that is not obviously apparent after a first viewing.  Art, family, secrets, commitment, legacies—Summer Hours touches on many of the issues seen in Late August, but here in a quieter, family register, centering on generational transitions. An ensemble piece, the cast includes Juliette Binoche, and Edith Scob as the matriarch.

Carlos (2010), as big as Summer Hours seems small (nine countries, eight languages) is a three part, six hour film about the notorious international terrorist. Sprawling, complex, and, as with all such films well-handled, brimming with charismatic killers that soak the screen with moral ambiguity. A wild ride, the long set piece in part two will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Clouds of Sils Maria (2014).  After three viewings, possibly our favorite. Very Assayas, with much to say about celebrity, popular culture, and the navigation of art and commerce, all delivered with an insistence on contrasting perspectives, much left unsaid, and even more open to interpretation. Binoche is, not surprisingly, marvelous (Assayas wrote the film with her in mind), but equally impressive is Kristen Stewart, who shares the screen with her on equal footing.  Stewart would go on to carry Assayas’ follow-up, Personal Shopper, but her performance in Sils Maria is a revelation.  


Cluzet Amalric

Cluzet and Amalric on a Train in Late August, Early September


Hansen Love

Mia Hansen-Løve (right) in Late August, Early Semtember


Edith Scob

Edith Scob in Summer Hours


Stewart Clouds

Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria



Juliette Binoche in Clouds


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