With his latest, Wasp Network, now on Netflix, we try to capture what makes this French filmmaker so unique in a handful of films
French auteur Olivier Assayas has been a prominent force in cinema for over thirty years, yet his name remains relatively unknown outside of the arthouse circuit. He made his feature debut with the 1986 psychological thriller Disorder and later became renowned for his collaborations with actress Juliette Binoche, with whom he's since made a handful of acclaimed features.
Assayas isn't an easy filmmaker to pin down, thematically or stylistically. His films, though dramatically rich, can sometimes feel like personal meditations – essay-like, and formal in tone. In general, though, they tend to hinge on either intergenerational conflicts or work as explorations of the intersection of life and art – the way that art informs and dictates who we are and colours our interactions.
Elsewhere, he's explored the way that technology rubs shoulders with the traditional, the lives of bohemians, punks, and outsiders, and the subject of life after death. There's also that five and a half hour biopic about Carlos the Jackal, exposing the director's panache for the political.
To coincide with the release of his latest film, Cuban espionage thriller Wasp Network, here are five essential works by one of the cinema's most relentlessly interesting filmmakers…
Cold Water (1994)
Where to watch it: Available as part of the Criterion Collection
Assayas mined aspects of his own youthful exploits for this punk-ish story of wayward teens, which plays out with little concern for narrative momentum but effectively emulates the restless mood of its lost protagonists. For years Cold Water, with its tale of greasy-haired adolescents – Virginie Ledoyen and Cyprien Fouquet – caught in a doomed love affair, was unavailable due to issues with music rights (a recent Criterion restoration has brought it back into circulation where it belongs). The film meanders in a loose story of inter-generational conflict, while its centrepiece – a party in a crumbling mansion, backed with famous tracks from Alice Cooper, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen – has Assayas' frenetic camera painting a bonfire as the most cathartic act of teenage liberation. All the way to its bleak ending, Cold Water captures the aching of young, frustrated, and enigmatic hearts with extraordinary empathy.
Irma Veep (1996)
Where to watch it: BFI Player
Enigmatically titled meta-movie Irma Vep might just be Assayas' best film – a playful send-up of the arthouse scene that mocks French cinema, while lovingly subverting and embracing its conventions. Long before other shows and films came to popularise the idea of an actor playing themselves (Being John Malkovich was still a year off), Irma Vep saw Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung, as herself, arriving in Paris to shoot a remake of silent film classic Les Vampires. As the production falls into chaos, this sweet, easy-going incarnation of Cheung, surrounded by indulgent artists and pretentious actors, simply tries to keep her head above the water. Narratively elusive and packed with clever little details, this freewheeling ode to the art and business of movie-making seems to get richer with every viewing.
Summer Hours (2008)
Where to watch it: Amazon Prime Video
There is something formal and, at times, coldly drawn about this meditation on intergenerational disconnection. But Summer Hours is a film whose purpose isn't made quite clear until its final moments, where the weight of what's happened hits you unexpectedly, and there is a sudden, overwhelming sense of what's been lost. Juliette Binoche plays one of three siblings who inherent their late mother's estate and artistic possessions, many of them worth a small fortune. Their mother's life is considered through the objects she has left behind; but in their discussions and conversations we wonder how much these children came to take her for granted – or are they simply repressing their sadness? Time jumps forward in great spurts, giving us a fragmented narrative of misaligned priorities and suppressed emotions – all with more than a hint of Ozu's Tokyo Story.
Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)
Where to watch it: Various streaming services
In yet another tale of cross-generational disenchantment that comes to feel almost like a modern, meta-inclined take on All About Eve, Clouds of Sils Maria finds Juliette Binoche's fading star in the midst of a career crisis; coming to the realisation that she's being overlooked in favour of younger actresses, she holes up in the Swiss Alps with her assistant – Kristen Stewart – to prepare for a play. Binoche is, of course, excellent, gamely spoofing on her own career and star persona, but it's the unexpectedly cast Stewart who makes the biggest impression here (this comes to feels like her movie as much as it does the director's). At the time of its release, Clouds of Sils Maria signalled a change in direction for the Twilight actress; her efforts even resulted in her bagging a Caesar, the French equivalent of an Oscar – and so well-deserved.
Personal Shopper (2016)
Where to watch it: Various streaming services
There is an argument to be made that Assayas' five and a half hour-long Cuban epic Carlos should occupy the fifth spot on this list. Yet it feels basically criminal to leave off Personal Shopper, arguably the filmmaker's strangest – or at least his most beguiling – film to date. Here the director re-teams with a never-better Kristen Stewart, who plays the put-upon assistant of a famous actress, but who also happens to possess a gift for talking with the dead. Following the death of her brother, she's struggling to keep it together, and Assayas using her grief as a way to muse on everything from social media to his own power as director. This is such a strange and unique film, so thoroughly realist in style, yet peppered wth moments that seem ripped right out of a B-movie. It feels like nothing else in Assayas' canon – or any other canon, in fact.
Wasp Network is now streaming on Netflix.
Artwork for this article was created by Braulio Kuwabara. You can follow his work here.