Assayas speaks of film, art over tea

For Olivier Assayas — the French director of “Paris, Je T’aime” — filmmaking is deeply connected to instinct and intuition.

“What you’re looking for in art, you can’t exactly verbalize,” he said at a Saybrook College Master’s Tea on Thursday. “You look for something that is what your instinct draws you to.”

French film director Olivier Assayas — creator of films including “Paris, Je T’aime” and “Irma Vep” — talks during a Saybrook College Master’s Tea on Thursday. He discussesd the winding career path that led him to filmmaking.
Kate Hawkins
French film director Olivier Assayas — creator of films including “Paris, Je T’aime” and “Irma Vep” — talks during a Saybrook College Master’s Tea on Thursday. He discussesd the winding career path that led him to filmmaking.

Assayas discussed his views on the nature of art and filmmaking with an audience of about 45 at the tea, co-sponsored by the Cinema at the Whitney. Assayas, who has written and directed over 20 short and feature films, spoke at length about how he got into film, as well as the internationalism in his work.

Assayas said his father was a screenwriter whose work was often rejected by the Nouvelle Vague style of cinema predominant in France in the 1960s. He said that as a child, it became clear to him that he wanted to be involved in film before he was even sure what the business involved.

A teenager in the 1970s, Assayas said the decade of his adolescence was a “special time.”

Saybrook Master Mary Miller asked about the standard characterization of the period as one of sex, drugs and rock and roll.

“I wish there had been more sex at the time,” Assayas joked.

But rock and roll does figure deeply into his life and film, he said.

The music of the 1970s, which he called “the poetry of the age,” conveyed to him emotions that the cinema of the time did not provide, he said.

“In film, I am trying to recreate things that I’ve felt while listening to music,” he said.

The 70s, historically characterized as an era of change, were also a time when the nature of French filmmaking was evolving, he said. But he said although he grew up around cinema and knew he wanted to work in films someday, directing was not his first career.

Assayas began painting at age 15, taking on an occupation that he said did not contradict his aspirations in film. Instead, he said, it served as an education. He said he thought if he saw the world and began to understand it, he would have themes and stories to eventually use in his movies.

Assayas made his first short film when he was 24, although he had written screenplays before. While he said he now considers it a bad film, a prominent film magazine of the time — Cahiers du Cinema — wrote a praiseworthy piece about the short and asked him to join the magazine.

The experience of working at the magazine for five years, Assayas said, was film school for him, as he met with and learned from more experienced filmmakers.

Eventually, a short film he wrote with a friend was featured at the Cannes Film Festival in 1986. This piece put him on the map, Assayas said, allowing him the influence in the industry to make a feature film. Since then, he has written and/or directed three documentaries and numerous feature films such as “Irma Vep” and “Paris, je T’aime.”

Assayas’ latest work, a genre film called “Boarding Gate,” was filmed in English with some Cantonese and was shown at a preview at the Whitney Humanities Center on Thursday night.

“There’s some kind of physical energy in genre films, an intuitive emotion,” he said. “They have a dialogue not just with the intellect, but physically.”

His discussion of genre resonated with Dariush Nothaft ’08, who said he had written about the type of film before. Nothaft said he found Assayas’ treatment of genre and how it plays into writing and audience interaction especially interesting.

Assayas also discussed his use of languages other than French — including Hungarian — in his films. He said he often writes dialogue in French when he wants it performed in English, and vice versa, to put his actors on edge by asking them to translate the script themselves, thereby eliciting a more spontaneous performance.

He said he had begun to feel uncomfortable in the standard framework of French film and that English allowed to him to explore new areas. The use of foreign tongues also represented the globalization of society and of film culture, Assayas said.

Joe Babarsky ’09 said he enjoyed the filmmaker’s comments on the use of other languages as being freeing, not limiting.

He also commented on Assayas’ physical presence.

“He seemed really fidgety at the beginning, but you could see how he got more physically comfortable,” Babarsky said.

Richard Suchenski GRD ’11, who helped organize the event as graduate chair of the Cinema at the Whitney, said he enjoyed the large-scale perspective Assayas applied to film.

“I liked how he tried to align cinema more broadly with deeper aspirations and ambitions,” he said.

Assayas will participate in a panel discussion with Kent James, a film critic, at 3:30 today in the Whitney Auditorium.

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