Olivier Assayas: 5 key films

Irma Vep, dir. Olivier Assayas
Third Eye: Spirituality, Magic and Witches "Pain and Glory" and "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" in the program

Matthew Thrift for New Horizons IFF

It’s as difficult to classify the films of French maestro Olivier Assayas as it is to chart a through-line between them. It’s even more difficult to pick just five of them to stand as representative of his wonderfully disparate ouevre. Suffice to say that the retrospective at this year’s New Horizons Film Festival is one of the cinematic events of the year, especially when it comes to much of his earlier work, for which big screen viewing opportunities are few and far between. This list could as easily have been an entirely different five, but here are a handful of essentials to get you primed for the retrospective…

Disorder (1986)

Where better to start than at the beginning? Sure, there are more assured films later in his career that are perhaps better deserving of being singled out, but there’s always fascination to be found in considering a filmmaker’s career in its embryonic stages. In many ways, Assayas’ debut feature (which followed a handful of shorts) sees him already on the road to the next film on this list, not least given its particular way with music and youthful misadventure as it charts the disintegration of a New Romantic band following a robbery that turns violent. If nothing else, Disorder connects to the singular rhythmic qualities that mark Assayas’ later work. Can’t wait for the very rare opportunity to catch this on the big screen.

Cold Water (1994)

Difficult to see for some time until its recent release by Criterion, Cold Water stands, not just in the top tier of Assayas’ work, but as one of the great films of the 1990s, period. Following the less than successful A New Life the previous year, which he’d shot with cumbersome Panavision cameras, the opportunity to go light and handheld on Super 16 was snatched at, effectively establishing the visual mode he’d adopt and adapt for the rest of his career. Coming-of-age tales rarely come as lyrical as this, or so miraculously calibrated to a structural scheme borne out of classic rock music. At its centre lies one of the great party sequences ever committed to film, followed by the aching beauty of its Nico-scored comedown. Essential big screen viewing, and then some.

Irma Vep (1996)

Arguably the film for which Assayas is best known, Irma Vep follows in the tradition of François Truffaut’s 1973 film, Day for Night and R.W. Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore (it even stars both Jean-Pierre Léaud and Lou Castel) in charting the meta, behind-the-scenes goings-on of a film director (Léaud) attempting to remake the classic Louis Feuillade serial, Les Vampires (1915). Maggie Cheung — who would work with Assayas again in the excellent Clean (2004), as well as marrying him — stars as herself, or a version of herself; fresh to Paris from Hong Kong and cast as the eponymous Feuillade heroine. Shot quickly and on the hoof, it's a fizzing pile-on of post-modern impulsiveness, at once playful and sincere in its fin de siecle, pre-millennial anxieties, many of which are directed at the medium itself. Its (self-)referential layers are infinitely readable, much like the coup de cinema of its graffiti-barraged finale.

Demonlover (2002)

Where David Cronenberg had used the emergent home entertainment industry as his thematic launchpad back in 1983 with Videodrome, Assayas finds his own kinship in the online realms with this ferocious provocation. On the surface, Demonlover is a corporate espionage thriller that revolves around the stolen secrets of a pair of adult entertainment distributors skirting the limits of legality. Under the skin, though, lies one of the greta films about the consumption and commodification of screen violence. To call it a satire would suggest a knowing twinkle, but Assayas’ examination possesses an intense froideur, as detached and dispassionate as its ruthless protagonists. A stylistic tour de force, its barrage of cross-media confrontations is underscored with a driving Sonic Youth soundtrack. Not for the faint at heart, but troubling, prescient and essential.

Personal Shopper (2016)

Assayas’ masterpiece, for this viewer at least, Personal Shopper is an elusive study in grief and stardom, featuring a career-best performance from Kristen Stewart. It’s a ghost story, quite literally; Stewart’s Maureen at once a medium attempting to commune with the dead, and the titular shopper for international megastar, Kyra. A plot description would do little justice to the film’s remarkable strangeness, or its teasing way with genre — one moment we’re in full-on thriller territory, the next a Repulsion-esque assault on the protagonist’s sense of identity. The chief pleasures of the film, and the reason it’s the Assayas picture I return to so frequently, lie in its refusal to commit to any of its dangling genre threads entirely; it feels like a picture as much defined by its absences as what’s present moment to moment. Fitting, that a film broadly dealing with the question of loss should reside in such intangible realms.

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