Beginning his film career as a critic for the legendary French publication Cahiers du Cinéma, Olivier Assayas has emerged as one of France’s most well recognised filmmakers. His last two films — Personal Shopper and Clouds of Sils Maria — have marked both a move to English-language filmmaking and a recurring collaboration with actress Kristen Stewart.
We spoke to Assayas at Locarno Film Festival, where he served as the head of the jury for the International Competition. We spoke to Assayas about mediating the panel in his position, what he looks for in a film, and how his appreciation of cinema has changed over the years.
Note: This interview was conducted as part of a roundtable discussion with one other film journalist. For the sake of transparency, all questions asked by the other participating journalist are preceded by an asterisk.
*You’re here as president of the jury, and yet I feel like filmmakers must feel that everything that they put out is like their child, so how do you judge all these people’s children?
You know it’s a difficult question because what is exciting, what’s great about being in a jury, in a festival like Locarno is you have a lot of movies coming from a lot of places, from filmmakers you’re not necessarily aware of. It’s often can be first features by possibly younger filmmakers, so I’m a bit selfish about it, because it gives me a snapshot of contemporary filmmaking. I’m trying to absorb as much as I can to understand the working, to understand the processes, and I try to be as open as possible.
*Is it different when you judge documentaries as to when you look at a narrative film?
It’s not the same values. I think that when you do fiction you take more chances, in a certain way. I think it’s more risky when you attempt fiction, because when you make documentaries, you always have this kind of validation by reality — unless you’re completely distorting it and you’re a dishonest person.
You started your film career as a critic with Cahiers du Cinéma. I know that period of your life is over two decades ago now, but I am curious as to how much you believe your perception of what of cinema is has changed – particularly as you moved into filmmaking.
You know, I was never a critic. I never considered myself as a film critic. I started doing short films, writing screenplays and then for awhile, for a few years I wrote some film theory, including some film criticism because I had to, but I was never… I never had the desire to be a film critic. I never envisioned myself as a film critic, but I did that at a period of my life when I thought I kind of needed to understand things about cinema, understand things about film theory, understand the world map of cinema, and writing about movies gave me that, and also the opportunity to meet filmmakers I admired.
To me, it was the best possible film school. The way it changed my perspective I suppose is that I believe in this connection between theory and practice. I think that you also make movies with ideas and you need to have ideas about filmmaking to achieve whatever you’re trying to achieve through your movies, but then I started making features in 1986 — a while ago — and I left all that behind.
Do you feel your definition of what constitutes “good cinema” has changed at all?
For the last three decades I’ve been making movies, I’ve been living, I’ve been observing the world. You become a different person, so basically my perspective on the world in general is very different and I hope that with every movie I make a step forward. I kind of hope I’m a better person, and hopefully a better filmmaker and hopefully try to… It’s very hard for me to go back to a different time when I would have different values in my relationship to filmmaking. I had a stiffer notion of cinema.
*Your films for me, and I think for a lot of other people, require multiple viewings, because you want to re-experience them as you, to relive them as moments. Is there a film or are there films that you want to rewatch as well?
The Mirror by Andre Tarkovsky. I can watch it over and over again and I’ll never be tired of it and always think I’m discovering things about it. I suppose anything by Robert Bresson — so L’Argent, or Le diable probablement — or the silent films of Fritz Lang. I can watch them over and over and over again.
As a viewer, since you are first and foremost at the festival in that capacity, do you have a certain approach to how to relate to a film? Do you watch a movie and come out and then immediately say to the jury, “I like it!” or “I didn’t like it?”
I don’t function in terms of “I like” or, “I don’t like”. First, I’m trying to do something that’s very difficult. I don’t speak when I go out of the theatre, as much as I feel like it. I try to stop myself and it’s sometimes a bit awkward with the jury because I just don’t want to speak when I walk out of the theatre, because I just want to let the film echo a bit. I’m ready to discuss it the next day and once I have some articulate thoughts about it.
I think that movies, all movies, need that kind of echo. Your gut reaction when you go out of the theatre is not enough. Not if you are in a situation of having to weigh those movies and take each of them one by one extremely seriously.
Yeah, I think that is a quality that lends itself to quite a healthy jury – where you’re aware that you’ve got to play a mediating force at the head of it.
Yeah, which is difficult for me because I’m totally irresponsible. I like to be totally irresponsible in terms of my movie taste. Here, I have to be rational, I have to be serious about it. It becomes a serious thing. In real life I’m happy to see Wonder Woman and walk out of the theatre extremely happy.
A festival like Locarno shows films to an audience. It’s basically an audience film festival. It allows for them to have the experience that you’re having as well, to watch things that they would never be able to watch in the cinema.
*How important are film festivals? Because people say sometimes they’re just a cocoon where people believe that that’s the place to be.
Film festivals are about supporting the art of filmmaking and they are windows for original, new, modern filmmaking and this is where it is happening. Because in the theatres, only a fraction of the movies we see here will end up in theatres.
*Maybe a tenth.
Yeah. For young filmmakers, for new filmmakers, for experimental filmmakers, film festivals are essential and I think they’re doing a pretty good job of protecting cinema when the industry is tougher on independent filmmaking, on research and the development part of cinema.
I was reading your interview with Locarno that was posted on their website, and saw that you said that the rule was “there is no rule”. The statement seemed to reflect a set of ideas that you’ve carried throughout your career – this sort of anti-authoritative, rejection of certain structures around film, and more broader segments of society.
Well I’m saying that because I believe in interacting with the world as it is changing. I don’t believe in ideology. I believe in constantly adapting to an ever-changing reality and that’s the way I make my films.
I never really film my screenplays. For me the screenplays are the starting point. I see enough to see and I try to absorb the energies around me and try to get as much as I can of an actor, of the set, of the light, of whatever and of the alchemy of the whole of it.
*In that same interview, you mentioned Netflix and Amazon. It wasn’t completely clear in the way that they wrote it out. I’m wondering if you think that Amazon and Netflix are a good platform to reach a wider audience?
What I am saying is that Netflix and Amazon are two different things.
Amazon are financing movies, so they are another financier for movies. Great for them, great for us. Netflix is a bit different because it doesn’t give a broad platform to movies, because movies, they have their own life and then they end up on Netflix anyway. Or if it’s not Netflix it’s an equivalent of Netflix.
With movies, they have their first run and then they are on DVD and then they are pirated and then they’re everywhere on the net, so the broad access to movies is not anything original or new that they are bringing. No, to me the issue with Netflix is that for me, I don’t make movies for the small screen.
I love making movies that are to be shown in the theatre and shared by an audience. I don’t relate to the notion of premiering a film on the internet and I don’t relate to the notion of the movie staying there. I mean, I prefer to have a smaller audience in a film theatre than a bigger audience on the net, totally. To me there’s not even a second of a doubt, because I need that kind of connection with the audience.
*But a film like Okja, which was one of your examples, wouldn’t have been made.
Okja is opening here and there, but it has only a few screenings in theatres, but it’s mostly online. No, what I’m saying is that I’m sure that Bong is very happy he’s made that film and he’s made the film with a lot of freedom, on his own terms. What is a bit frustrating is that it ends there. It doesn’t have the life on the big screen it should have.
To me I was thinking of my film Carlos, which was almost fully financed by Canal+ in France. Meaning [it was financed] by big TV, but the thing is that it only concerned France. Once you passed the border of France, it was a movie and it was shown in theatres and so the bargain was “Okay, TV is paying for the film. They have exclusive rights in France, but abroad it’s something else.”
*Is that maybe the way of the future, to be able to have…
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Why not? But I think this notion of local release will be fading, because movies will be happening all over the world. That thing is changing fast, also because of piracy, also because of the internet. Now you have a movie opening — even a movie for kids and especially a movie for kids — [and] all the kids all over the world, they have been watching the trailer on YouTube or whatever and…
*Sometimes they’ll watch it on a little screen.
Yeah, that’s what my daughter does.
I’m reminded of Carlo Chatrian last year, speaking about what would’ve been… Scarred Hearts by Radu Jude. He articulated how the film — shot on 35mm, with the academy ratio — was a reminder that cinema had a shape and a form to it. I think that’s definitely one of the more tangible aspects of cinema that streaming threatens.
I think that festivals are the place where movies are protected. That’s where you see movies the way they should be seen, and in the best possible technical conditions, so that’s why they are precious. They are important.
*Can cinema change the world?
You know, I generally don’t think so.
I think that bad movies, that bad filmmaking does change the world for the worse.
I think that’s a really good way of wrapping it up.