Posted tagged ‘olivier assayas’

ND/NF: Paul Giamatti in Vanya on 42nd Street…and also in Russia for some reason

March 19, 2009


You know a film is tackling the existential ennui of creative-types when the first moment of excitement comes from an issue of The New Yorker.

But that’s what Cold Souls, Sophie Barthes’s feature debut, looks at, and it’s blessed to have such a good subject.

Paul Giamatti plays, well, a slightly exaggerated version of Paul Giamatti–I’m pretty sure he was never as suave as in an imaginary clip of his work within the film where he says “Let’s go make love”–who is trying to find his character in a performance of Uncle Vanya. This is of course, brilliant, since anyone knowing the Chekov play and the actor would know he’s perfect for the part. Yet the dilemma is that in the film Giamatti is unwilling to suffer to find his character: the superfluous man.

Thus, we are taken on an absurdist journey of soul-swapping, Russian “mules”, chickpeas and an impeccably coiffed David Strathairn. It’s a journey that seems to echo Dante or Sartre with a pinch of the internationalist films of Olivier Assayas; the search for one’s own soul, a commodity on the market between countries. And while this sounds interesting, one can’t help but wonder at the number of allusions we’re supposed to take and accept; the film sometimes seems like a class in contemporary western philosophy.

Yet what anchors Cold Souls to a reachable humanist point is Giamatti himself, a wonderful and underused actor. He is so much a schlub, a wonk, a beardo, a sufferer that it is endlessly fascinating just to get caught up looking in his face, as the film does in many expressive shots, as we search his eyes for the remnant of a soul.

In the end, Cold Souls is a smart, slight film. That it demands a high degree of literacy from its audience is refreshing after the wave of mall-cop/Tyler Perry movies offered to us as insults to our intelligence otherwise.

-Nicholas Feitel, ND/NF New Voice

Buy tickets to Cold Souls: Fri Mar 27: 9 (MoMA) and Sun Mar 29: 5 (FSLC)

NYFF wrap-up: FilmCatcher’s Damon Smith looks back at interviewing the directors of the NYFF

October 15, 2008

Week in and week out, as part of our ongoing series of video interviews, I chat up film-world personalities along with my producer and colleague, Cristina Garza. And sometimes, it’s the things people say before the cameras go live, or after they’ve been powered down, that remain with me weeks or even months after the conversation ends. There is an art to the interview, to be sure, and even after a decade of face-to-face repartee with people I admire (and a few I don’t), there’s always something to learn from every exchange. Gabbing with a director for a long-form print piece, for instance, is not the same as sitting her down in front of a camera, which records, warts and all, not just the back-and-forth banter (or its gaps), but the physical appearance of the interviewee, which makes some people (even A-list celebrities) self-conscious and just a little stiffer than they might otherwise be. A good video interviewer must be respectful and informed—that’s a golden rule—but also a decent judge of personality and mood, able to loosen up and relax the person being filmed before the tape runs.

Last week, I spoke at length with French writer-director Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep, Demonlover, Boarding Gate) about his new film Summer Hours, which is screening at the 2008 New York Film Festival. Though I’ve met Assayas twice before and consider myself a fan of his work, I knew he didn’t remember me (why would he?) and wanted to find a way to engage him before we were locked into formal conversation. (He was preoccupied, but far from nervous.) I asked if he’d had a chance to see Laurent Cantet’s The Class, the Opening Night film at NYFF and currently a theatrical hit in France, knowing he’d have a strong opinion one way or the other, probably negative. Without hesitation, he told me he took issue with the film’s “micromanaged sociology,” which led us into a discussion of the new vogue for realism in today’s international cinema. Assayas prefers the “mystery” of pure fiction, he told me, because—except in special cases, such as the work of Frederick Wiseman—he finds it is superior to the aesthetic paradigms of documentary. Ironically, for him, fiction offers a more sophisticated engagement with reality. This I found utterly fascinating, and while his remarks didn’t change my own opinion of Cantet’s observational schoolroom drama (one of the best at NYFF this year), they allowed me to pursue a related point in our discussion of Summer Hours, a pastoral family drama filmed in an almost classical French arthouse style.

Mike Leigh (Riff Raff, Secrets & Lies, Naked) was a different case altogether. On the eve of our interview, several acquaintances warned me that Leigh was notorious for being irascible and rude, and not just to journalists (which is sometimes understandable). Having heard about his ostensibly arrogant, hard-charging way of dealing with the public, his students, and those with the temerity to lob questions at post-screening Q&As (the nerve of some people!), I was anticipating a most unpleasant tête-à-tête with the legendary director, whose latest film, Happy-Go-Lucky (also at NYFF), I consider to be one of his best. Instead of a sour personality, though, Leigh was a vivacious presence. He bounded into the hotel suite where we’d set up, greeted us warmly, and gamely took a seat in a swivel chair by the window overlooking midtown Manhattan, telling us how much he loved being in New York for the film festival each September, when the weather is crisp and autumnal. And he responded amicably when Ana Maria, our videographer, prompted him with a few get-to-know-you questions to test the microphone. It was only once the interview began that I got a taste of Leigh’s acerbic conversational style. He flatly refused to synopsize his film for the benefit of non-festival-going viewers, saying “No—ask me a question.” Then, during the course of our lively banter, he had a habit of tweaking questions, dramatically stopping the camera to clarify a fact, and defending his image from what he seemed to perceive were the philistine forces of reportorial consensus: “It is absolutely erroneous that …” went one reply, or [I’m paraphrasing here] “The idea that I left the theater for film is a hoary myth perpetuated by legions of journalists, mostly those, in my opinion, of an uncritical and unintelligent orientation.” And so it went.

I actually found Leigh’s combativeness sporting, and told him so, a remark that made him chuckle darkly. Some might find his manner hostile or impolite, but I think Leigh is charmingly forthright; he seems to enjoy holding people to the letter and form (if not the spirit) of their inquiries, demanding the same rigor and seriousness from his viewers as he does from his actors and students. And if nothing else, his cranky candor reminded me that precision, in speech or written argument, is always a virtue. I look forward to our next sparring match.

-Damon Smith

Damon Smith is the editor-in-chief of FilmCatcher.

See all our video coverage.

Olivier Assayas talks about creating a “parallel reality” in his latest film, Summer Hours

October 11, 2008

In an interview from our friends at FilmCatcher, Olivier Assayas talks about how Summer Hours started as a short film, a commisioned piece, and ultimately became a feature film.

Film Comment presents: a podcast interview with Olivier Assayas

October 3, 2008

Film Comment’s own Evan Davis interviews Summer Hours director Olivier Assayas in this 17 minute podcast, produced by Paul Brunick. Stay tuned for more from the Film Comment team.

Download podcast (mp3)

Snapshots: Olivier Assayas, director of Summer Hours

October 3, 2008

New York Film Festival Snapshots sponsored by:

Olivier Assayas, director of Summer Hours

Photo: Godlis

The Tender Loss of Memory: “Summer Hours”

October 1, 2008

A woman who has just celebrated her 75th birthday sits in a chair of the house she has lived in for decades. Her children and grandchildren have just left the celebrations. The maid (practically a member of the family) asks how she is feeling. The woman—half-bathed in the blue twilight, half-enclosed in shadow—sighs. “There are stories that interest no one anymore . . . but there is the residue, there are the objects.” A gentle piece of chamber music plays underneath. The woman stares out into the darkness. Fade to black.

Few moments in recent cinema have moved me more than the last time we see Hélene (Edith Scob) in Olivier Assayas’s new film, Summer Hours. Mere minutes later, the film has moved ahead four months, and Hélene has died from unspecified causes. Her three children—Frédéric (Charles Berling), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier)—are left to decide what must happen with the family home. As time passes the children slowly reveal how much of their lives and history together infuses every object, every crevice, and every windowpane in the big, mournful house.

What is so ecstatically beautiful about Summer Hours is the careful attention to the nuances and delicacies of family interaction, no matter how much they’ve drifted apart, geographically and emotionally. Frédéric, the oldest, is an economics professor and the only child who stayed in France. Adrienne is a designer who has settled in New York, and who has managed to stay the most youthful and vital. Jérémie, the youngest, has moved to China because of his job in international commerce. Frédéric is the only one who actually wants to keep the house, and the one most invested in keeping the memories within it alive. It is implicitly understood by all how much of the family’s history will be lost with the sale of the house and the objects within it.

Assayas brilliantly employs his formalistic gifts to evoke the elegiac nature of the family’s struggle. His compositions are still lifes, evocative–in detail and emotion–of those of the late 19th Century masters, using light, shadow, and movement to breathe human existence into the inanimate. A graceful tracking shot around a desk in the Musée d’Orsay seems like Assayas’s recontextualization of the dolly around hospital statues in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century. Both are incarnations of human memory within the inanimate world, but whereas Apichatpong is mysterious and ebullient, Assayas is specific and mournful. His spiraling camera-moves in Frédéric’s kitchen after the funeral stick closely to the three siblings, subtly uncovering the their true feelings about the future of their mother’s estate. Adrienne even bursts into laughter as she struggles to tell her brothers that she is getting married, and that because of this, her chances of enjoying the house are diminishing. Joy in sadness, dejection in hope; these are the trials of a loving but fragile family.

The house is sold, the children and grandchildren have moved back to their respective corners of the world, and Frédéric’s teenage daughter, Sylvie (Alice de Lencqueisaing) has narrowly avoided criminal charges for theft and marijuana possession. The summer has begun again, and Sylvie throws a massive party for her friends at the house before it’s re-occupied. Initially, we wonder if her friends are violently tearing down the past to make room for a more superficial and destructive future. But as the camera follows Sylvie preparing for the party, as her guests roam the hallways, we realize that the next generation is bringing the house to life again. She runs into a meadow with her boyfriend and describes to him how she and her grandmother used to pick cherries when she was a little girl. Assayas longs for the history of this family to continue in the spirit of the old house, but says that although it cannot, the grandchildren will find ways to create a new history of beautiful, tender memories. Joy in sadness, dejection in hope; such is the life of a loving and evolving family.