A Conversation with Brad Deane of TIFF

Olivier Assayas

Though I’ve already written in these pages about the retrospective, ‘Something in the Air: The Cinema of Olivier Assayas,’ happening at TIFF this summer, I recently had the chance to speak with Brad Deane, the Senior Manager of TIFF Cinematheque, who is also a part of the programming team for the festival. It was readily apparent that he was a big fan of Assayas’s movies, and he spoke candidly about why the French director of the post May ’68 French tradition remains and will remain relevant in our conversations regarding film, modern culture, and life as we know it.

Hoon: How did you first come across Assayas’s films?

Brad Deane: I think it was at the festival when ‘Clean’ was playing at the Gala. I first heard of him when I was in university in Florida but back then I didn’t have much access to the films. I watched a few of them but it wasn’t until later on that I got to see more and more of his films. There are also a lot of earlier ones that were hard to see. Doing the retrospective is when I was first able to see them. Every time I watched the films I wanted to do a retrospective more and more as I saw these themes running through the works.

H: I’ve been always curious as to see what it’d be like to watch, virtually one after the other, a series of movies by a single director. Do you think a retrospective like this one brings certain elements of the movies to light?

B: Definitely. I think Olivier sees his works that way too. Stylistically they are very different. There’s ‘Demon Lover’ then ‘Clean’ and then he goes back to ‘Boarding Gate.’ But I still do see themes running through the whole body of works. And I know from talking to him that he sees them in that way, he sees them as parts of a larger project. He’s just approaching it from different angles.

Maggie Cheung in ‘Clean’ (2004)

H: Are there particular things you want the audiences to see in Assayas’s films?

B: I’m always reluctant to point out because you’re always going to come away with your own thing. The films are great because they are so rich and there are many different things to look at. But I do think that strong female performances throughout his body of works are really amazing. He’s been doing that since the beginning — it’s effortless, I don’t think he’s consciously trying to do it. Some of the themes about modern culture and how modernization and technology are affecting us are fascinating: As we move ahead, what are losing from the past and what are we gaining? And I don’t think he’s making any kind of moral judgments on these subjects either.

From ‘Something in the Air’ (2012)

H: And I think that’s what was so interesting about watching ‘Summer Hours’ and ‘Personal Shopper’ — he addresses these issues not in a moralistic way but as part and parcel of personal stories.

B: I think he’s someone who doesn’t like to make moral decisions. And the way he approaches things from a political perspective is really fascinating because he grew up in a post May ’68 culture. While maybe some of the views could be considered toward the left, he’s always aware and critical and trying to see what we are gaining and losing. In some ways, he’s so tricky to pin down: you can’t really say he’s this or that. I find that really interesting because it’s engaging — he keeps pulling you in and asking questions. He’s someone who’s very curious about every subject he wants to tackle. And you as an audience member feel that curiosity in the films.

H: Assayas is now recognized as an auteur, yet sometime it is difficult to pin down Assayas into a single genre or a style of film. How would you describe his movies to someone who’s never seen one?

B: It’s tricky. I think ‘Cold Water’ on, there’s definitely a certain visible style of movement on screen with him. The films take place at a brisk pace, almost at the pace of life. If you don’t catch something, you can miss it, though you don’t often do since he’s so strategic about how he lays everything out for the audience. But the films move at that pace and I think that’s how he deemphasizes any moral judgments or anything like that.

H: Do you have a personal favorite Assayas’s movie? 

B: If I have to narrow it down to a few — and this is difficult because I really love his films — ‘Cold Water’, an absolute masterpiece, ‘Summer Hours’, ‘Carlos’…It’s hard to say with the newer ones but I absolutely loved ‘Personal Shopper’. It moves me every time I see it. I remember seeing it at Cannes and walking out of the cinema and feeling completely lost and dazed.

H: Tell us more about what you think of Personal Shopper. 

B: For me it’s about the idea of loss. Why are we here and what’s beyond here. And at the emotional level, losing someone close to you and how you deal with that. It captures that in such a beautiful and complicated way.

H: What I found interesting in Personal Shopper is that it’s an amalgam of genres, some of which he’s explored in his previous films — thriller, murder mystery, etc. 

B: That’s something I love about his work. He’s interested in big Hollywood type of films — we could talk about James Bond movies —, but then he also loves arthouse movies like Bergman and Hou Hsiao-hsien. He loves the high culture, he loves art, he loves trash, Hollywood…to him it’s all the same. There’s no judgment on which one’s better than the other. They all satisfy different needs.

Something in the Air: The Cinema of Olivier Assayas’ runs through August 20th. You can catch a double feature of Assayas’s ‘Personal Shopper’, starring Kristen Stewart, followed by Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 classic, ‘Blow Up.’ On closing day, you can watch Assayas’s ‘HHH — Portrait de Hou Hsiao-hsien‘ followed by ‘A Time to Live and a Time to Die‘ by Hou Hsiao-hsien. You can  get more information and purchase tickets hereStay on the look out for more information on TIFF’s various retrospectives happening before the festival this year, including ‘Ida Lupino: Independent Woman,’ a close look at the actor, screenwriter, director, and producer in Hollywood in the ’50s. 

Something in the Air: The Cinema of Olivier Assayas at TIFF

On June 9th, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott of the New York Times published ‘The 25 Best Films of the 21st Century,‘ a list of films that are “destined to be the classics of the future.” Because I read almost every review the two write, I went through the list and noted down films I haven’t seen that I’d like to see now that they’re meant for even more greatness. A few hours later, the marketing team at TIFF reached out with news of a new Summer-long complete retrospective — the first in 15 years — of the French master, Olivier Assayas whose 2008 film, Summer Hours, graced number #9 on NYT’s list and on top of my to-watch list. What are the chances!

Not all coincidences, it is said, are interesting. Considering that Assayas has long been synonymous with post-1968 generation of French cinema that deal with adolescence, political dissent, terrorism, and globalization, and that Summer Hours won numerous critics’ award around the world, perhaps this particular coincidence falls into the not very interesting category. Yet, it is, nevertheless, a fortuitous one, as I now have the chance to spread the news on TIFF’s Something in the Air: The Cinema of Olivier Assayas.

Scene from ‘Summer Hours’

Olivier Assays was a film-critic for France’s Cahiers du cinémathe prominent film magazine founded by André Bazin, before he became a director. Though he worked both as a director and screenwriter for numerous short and feature-length films alongside film giants like André Téchiné starting in 1978, Cold Waterreleased in 1994, is considered to be his breakthrough film as it was screened at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. Assayas has since established himself as a distinguished voice among contemporary filmmakers.

Assayas’s oeuvre is marked by the variety of genres. His 1996 satire Irma Vep about an actress (Maggie Cheung) and a failing director who wants to recreate Louis Feuillade’s 1915 classic Les Vampires is a strange and fascinating homage to the filmmaker and Hong Kong cinema. Sentimental Destinies (2000) is a costume drama set in the earl 20th centuries, concerning a Protestant minister. And with Demonlover (2002) and Boarding Gate (2007), Assayays forayed into noir and thriller. More recently, with Carlos (2010), Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), and Personal Shopper (2016), which won the Palme d’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, Assayas has become a globetrotter. With each genre, however, it is easy to see Assayas’s search for his vision. Encompassing his oeuvre is his rumination on films, film history, and issues of identity in the face of larger disorienting cultural, economic, and political forces.

Kristen Stewart as Maureen Cartwright in ‘Persona Shopper’

Summer Hours is interesting in that, for many who’ve come to know Assayas through Carlos and Personal Shopper, it offers a quieter and lyrical side of his oeuvre. The film begins with the 75th birthday of Helene (Édith Scob). Her three children, Frederic (Charles Berling), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), and Jeremie (Jérémie Renier) gather in Helene’s home outside Paris to celebrate. Soon, Helene dies and leaves the house and her all-important art-nouveau furniture along with her inheritance from her famous artist uncle to her children. What ensues is a series of scenes and dealings with practical matters in which what holds a family together becomes increasingly vague; what was once thought to be a common ground — the house, both literally and figuratively — becomes a point of tension as money, emotions, and personal histories come into play. The center, however contentious and insufficient it had been prior to Helene’s death, does not hold once she is gone. Jeremie moves permanently to Shanghai and Adrienne to New York. Frederic, the only one left in France, struggles to realign himself as the new, albeit reluctant, center of his family of four.

Just next to the adult world of lawyers and contracts, Helene’s grandchildren lead, mostly unseen, entirely different lives. Shown Corot’s works nonchalantly hanging in his grandmother’s house, Frederic’s eldest son responds, “Well, it’s another era.” When Frederic is in the middle of closing a deal with regards to Helene’s furniture, his daughter, Sylvie, is caught shoplifting. That the film ends not in the adult world but with the children speaks to Assayas’s brilliance and vision. The movie that began with Helene and the art or artifacts of her life turns to one concerned with the disorder inherent in a family and becomes one about generations and youth, continuity and the lack thereof in families, cultures, and societies.

As with all great themes in film, family and adolescence and identity are materials that are visited without every really exhausting them. And Assayas’s continually revisits them from unexpected avenues.

Édith Scob as Hélène Berthier in ‘Summer Hours’

As part of TIFF’s ‘Something in the Air: The Cinema of Olivier Assayas,’ Assayas will make four in-person appearances to introduce four of his films: Cold Water, Clean, Le Diable Probablement, and Le Pélican. It is also a chance to see 35mm prints of many of his films, including Summer Hours, Clouds of Sils Maria, and Something in the Air. Finally, it is also a chance to see HHH — Portrait de Hou Hsiao-hsienAssayas’s documentary of the great Taiwanese director (A Time to Live and a Time to Die by Hou Hsiao-hsien is also a part of the retrospective). The retrospective begins on June 22nd and runs through August 20th.

Olivier Assayas with Hou Hsiao-hsien

You can find more information on the retrospective and its schedule here. And continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Film Review: Equals

Photo credit: Rock-It Promotions.
Photo credit: Rock-It Promotions.

In the future, there will be no sex. In fact, there will be no touching, no companionship, no intimacy of any kind. Such is the world envisioned in Equals, starring Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult, opening in Canada today.

After a near apocalyptic event, the last vestiges of human civilization take refuge inside The Collective. On the bright side, The Collective knows almost no disease or suffering, and everyone looks great in their matching, perfectly tailored white suits. The downside is, everything is meaningless. With human emotion weeded out through the wonders of science, only those afflicted with SOS (Switched-On Syndrome, a bit of an eye-roller) are burdened by feelings.

All is well for emotionless and productive Collective member Silas (played by Hoult) until the arrival of Kristen Stewart, aka Naia, who inevitably introduces him to the art of brooding. From there, even more shocking behaviour follows as the two battle first to resist, and then to fulfill, their illicit passions.

The rebellion of the young couple begins when a bad case of SOS forces each of them to ask one question: what’s the point of it all? Unfortunately, the film leaves us wondering the same thing, not so much about our own culture, but about the conceit of the film itself. Why, we wonder, would a whole society be so invested in such an obviously vacuous existence? With no Big Brotherly grand oppressor to speak of, and no soma-fuelled orgies to make it all worthwhile, this future feels a little too inexplicable.

But the film is not without its charm. Hoult and Stewart give laudable performances under challenging circumstances. After all, how do you make a character interesting in a world where personality and emotion are effectively contraband?

“That was the trickiest part,” says director Drake Doremus. “It’s quite the opposite of what you’re normally doing in a movie.” And while the two leads never escape their initial flatness as much as one might like, it is compelling to watch their muted chemistry come quietly to the fore. In addition, the always impeccable Guy Pierce and Jacki Weaver round out the cast as supportive fellow SOS sufferers.

The most memorable part of Equals is its art direction, overseen by Jason Hougaard, who was production designer on Beyoncé’s Lemonade earlier this year. The Collective members live in a glistening white utopia of minimalism. Silas’s furniture slides smartly out of his apartment walls as he enters. Come feeding time, the walls produce five star meals as if by magic. At the office, the young attractive automatons work in rows, illustrating on touch screen standing desks. Picture a high tech minimum-security prison run by chic Japanese department store Muji. Everything is cool, everything is agreeable. Evidently, that’s the problem.

At its most thoughtful, Equals is a cautionary tale about style. It begins to ask: what does looking this good do to the soul? But the movie doesn’t answer this question. It might not know it’s asking it. Instead, the film sticks to its ham-fisted dystopian didactics, its unflinchingly predictable plot, and its often dull cinematography, whose warm and fuzzy close-ups speak the emotional language of an EDM music video.

Ultimately, the film never really escapes the dehumanizing quality of its own aesthetic. Consequently, it boils down to a platitude: without emotion, messy as it is, life is meaningless. Thankfully, the film’s flaws don’t get in the way of the sweetness of its better moments.