If my Locarno Film Festival experience ended after my interview last evening with French filmmaker Olivier Assayas — who is head of the International Competition Jury here — I could go home happy. Ecstatic actually.
Apart from Assayas being one of the most perfectly articulate persons I’ve ever met, indulging each and every question without any sign of haughtiness or “I know better than thou” attitude — which of course is the case because I’m convinced the man knows everything! — personally, I’m a huge fan of his cinema. Assayas’ films are cinematic human mysteries, to be enjoyed on the big screen of course, yet to be re-watched, relished time and time again so that their magic can truly be absorbed. At the moment, I am obsessed with watching ‘Personal Shopper’ starring Kristen Stewart over and over again, each time discovering new images and uncovering new, pardon the pun, personal truths within it.
He came to our interview dressed in a stylishly casual blue suit, jacket in hand, wearing a white t-shirt with a graphic Godzilla asymmetrically drawn on the front of it. That outfit, which outlined his lithe physique, made him look quintessentially cool. In fact, in person Assayas is way more handsome than in photographs, his manner quick and easy, his eyes filled with unassuming wisdom as he explained movies in a way that made me understand life.
Each time, in each of his oeuvres, I believe he reinvents cinema, and his personal philosophy of constantly adapting to a changing world, appears to be the secret to happiness, or at least contentment in this world. In fact, there is something deeply spiritual about Assayas, and a few minutes in his presence left me feeling like I’d spent an evening at a spa. Albeit it one where grand thoughts and illuminating ideas are on the menu instead of manicures and facials.
And yes, this was thanks to Locarno, the festival which Assayas himself has called, “the most passionate in the world.”
You are here as the President of the Jury and, as Nadir Moknèche pointed out before his Piazza Grande screening, filmmakers feel like mothers letting their children go out into the world when they show a film. So how do you judge other people’s children?
Olivier Assayas: You know it’s a difficult question because what is exciting, what’s great about being on a jury in a festival like Locarno is that you have a lot of movies coming from a lot of places from filmmakers you are not necessarily aware of. Often it can be first features, possibly younger filmmakers so I’m a bit selfish about it, because it gives me a snapshot of contemporary filmmakers. I’m trying to absorb as much as I can and to understand the workings, the processes and I try to be as open as possible.
I’m also trying something very difficult which is not speak when I go out of the theater, as much as I feel like it, I try to stop myself. It’s sometimes a bit awkward with the jury because I just don’t want to speak when I walk out of the theater — I just want to let the film echo a bit. I am ready to discuss it the next day, once I have some articulate thoughts about it. I think that all movies need that kind of echo, your gut reaction when you go out of the theater is not enough, not if you are in a situation where you have to weigh in on the movies and take each of them, one by one, extremely seriously.
Is it different to judge documentaries from when you look at a narrative film?
Assayas: It’s not the same values. It’s more risky when you attempt fiction whereas when you make documentaries you always have this sort of validation by reality. Unless you are completely distorting it and are a dishonest person. (laughs)
Can you talk about your early years as a film critic?
Assayas: I never considered myself a film critic. I started doing short films, writing screenplays and then for a few years I wrote some film theory, including some film criticism because I had to. But I never had the desire to be a film critic, I never envisioned myself as a film critic. I did that at a period in my life when I thought I needed to understand things about cinema, understand things about film theory, understand the world map of cinema and writing about movies gave me that. Also the opportunity of meeting filmmakers I admired, traveling to Hong Kong, going to Hollywood and meeting filmmakers whose work I was excited with. To me it was the best possible film school but the way it changed my perspective I suppose is that I believe in this connection between theory and practice. I think you also make movies with ideas and you need to have ideas about filmmaking to achieve whatever you are trying to achieve through your movies. Then I started making movies, features in 1986 and I left all that behind.
How has your movie-making perception changed over the last thirty years?
Assayas: For the last three decades I’ve been making movies, I’ve been living, I’ve been observing the world, you know, 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. It’s very hard for me to go back to a time when I had a different relationship with filmmaking. Then, I had a stiffer view of cinema.
There is this wonderful quote of yours on the Locarno Film Festival website, “the rule is that there is no rule.” Can you elaborate?
Assayas: 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 how I make my films. I never really film my screenplays, for me they are the starting point and then scene after scene I try to absorb the energies around me and try to get as much as I can of an actor, the set, of the light and the alchemy of the whole of it.
Your films for me require multiple viewings, and I think this is true for a lot of your audiences. Only then do we discover all the nuances, the hidden gems, one by one, slowly unfolding the magic before our eyes. Is there a film you go back to time and time again?
Assayas: ‘The Mirror’ by Andrei Tarkovsky I can watch it over and over again and never be tired of it and always think I’m discovering things about it, and I suppose anything by Robert Bresson ‘L’argent’ and ‘Le diable probablement’ — all the silent films of Fritz Lang. I can watch them over and over and over again and never get tired of them.
A festival like Locarno allows regular audiences to experience what film journalists, filmmakers and juries typically would, to watch things that they would never be able to watch in the cinema. How important are film festivals, because critics will sometimes say they only offer a safe cocoon to filmmakers.
Assayas: Film festivals are about supporting the art of filmmaking, they are windows for original, new, modern filmmaking and this is where it is happening. Because only a fraction of the movies we see here will end up in the theaters, so for young filmmakers, for new filmmakers, for experimental filmmakers film festivals are essential! I think they are doing a pretty good job of protecting cinema when the industry is tougher on independent filmmaking. Festivals are the place where movies are protected, that’s where you see movies the way they should be seen, in the best possible technical conditions, so that’s why they are precious.
So, can cinema change the world?
Assayas: I genuinely don’t think so... But I think that bad movies, bad filmmaking does change the world for the worst.