Olivier Assayas:
Adolescence and History


Olivier Assayas (born 1955) is best known as a filmmaker, but cinema makes only a late appearance in the pages of his A Post-May Adolescence: Letter to Alice Debord (original French edition 2005, English translation 2012). This book is an account of a personal formation, an initiation into a certain way of seeing the world and living within it; it is, equally, the record of youthful struggle and confusion.


Like Greil Marcus’ colourful book Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (Harvard University Press, first edition 1989), Assayas’ reflective memoir covers, and compares, two special moments of revolt in recent history: May 1968 in France, and the mid ‘70s apparition of punk in the UK. For both authors, the movement of thought and creation known as Situationism provides the golden thread connecting and, in part, inspiring these events – specifically Situationism as guided, theorised and indelibly written up by Guy Debord (1931-1994) with his closest comrades. A Post-May Adolescence does not offer a detailed history of Situationism or a survey of its roots; the reader can, by now, easily find many versions of this historical record, in hard print and on the Internet, across the many languages and cultures where the movement has left its impact.


Assayas’ account of May ’68 – he was 15 at the time – is, as he frequently admits, more anecdotal than lived; he was around and he saw some things, but his experience of the events was still fundamentally distant, second-hand. Like Debord, Assayas insists on the determining facts of each individual’s time, location, class, station, situation: the political history of 20th Century Europe thus comes to the young Olivier less through direct, sensory experience than the accounts of his family or his beloved Hungarian governess. And it later comes through reading and learning, and through the attempt to find – at first through painting, then through his filmmaking efforts – an artistic practice. Assayas came ‘after’ May ’68 but, as he wisely says – and in affinity with the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben – we are all, in some sense, ‘after’ the events around us, making only retrospective sense of them.


What Assayas more directly experienced were the aftershocks – or, more exactly, the quickly diminishing effects – of the May experience, through the long haul of the ‘years of lead’ in the 1970s, as he passed through school and then university. Cinephiles will doubtless recall, as they read these passages, the many indelible fictionalisations and reportages we have of this period in films such as Godard and Gorin’s Tout va bien  (1972), Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (1973), Alain Tanner’s The Middle of the World (1974), or Philippe Garrel’s L’Enfant secret (1982) – the last-named of which explores issues of personal madness and the brutal institutional response to it that we see also in Assayas’ 1994 film Cold Water, on the set of which Assayas had an epiphany that brings A Post-May Adolescence to its provisional closure.


There are autobiographical traces in many of Assayas’ films. Some of these traces relate to his ongoing obsessions, or particular social worlds he has closely observed: the music scene, for example, both independent and industrial, in his debut feature Désordre (1986) and Clean (2004), or filmmaking itself in Irma Vep  (1996). Assayas’ reflections on terrorism and his experience of splintered Leftist factions are given a vast, international canvas in Carlos (2010). Some films touch more directly on chapters of his sentimental education, like the depiction of family or friendship groups in Late August, Early September (1998) and Summer Hours (2006). Two works directly and fulsomely draw upon – with all due dramatic license and artistic transformation – the period of Assayas’ life detailed in A Post-May Adolescence: these are Cold Water and, finally in 2012, Après Mai (known in English as Something in the Air).


In Cold Water we find, for example, recreations of the Hungarian governess described in these pages, and some rituals of youth recreation (drugs, rock, slow dancing); while Après Mai promises to investigate the life and times of a young painter, involved with the politics all around him but eventually drawn to the path of cinema. In both films – whatever the exact realism or otherwise of certain autobiographical details – what matters most to Assayas is the capturing of a certain mood, a ‘70s (and beyond) Zeitgeist that is often evoked in this book: the years of disillusionment and confusion, of depression and delusion, of widespread retreat into a solipsistic sense of self, and a twinkling, all-absorbing consumerist spectacle on the march.


Assayas insists, within this book, on the fuzziness and fluidity of his memories – since it is less a matter of accounting for the person he has become today than bearing faithful witness to the unformed youth he once was, lunging at hopes but also diving into occasional back holes. This is precisely the portrait of an unformed self, casting around for a guide, some kind of intellectual, imaginary father-figure: whether that be the George Orwell of Homage to Catalonia (1938) or the Guy Debord of The Society of the Spectacle (1967).


A Post-May Adolescence is addressed to Alice Debord (aka Alice Becker-Ho, born 1941), the widow of Guy Debord, a poet, and someone closely involved with Situationism and its legacy since the 1960s. It is she who has overseen the publication of Debord’s manuscripts and correspondence after his suicide in 1994, and brought his long unseen films back into circulation – in collaboration with Assayas for the DVD edition titled Contre le cinéma (Gaumont).


Assayas has always identified himself with three particular tutelary figures who all proclaimed themselves, in effect, ‘against the cinema’: Debord, Andy Warhol (also vividly discussed in these pages) and Robert Bresson. That is to say, they were against the most conventional ways of doing and thinking about cinema, and also against its ever-recuperable status (even in cases of extreme experimentation) as an easily consumable lifestyle accessory. Of course, Assayas’ own cinephile interests, tastes and culture range much more widely than just these three Masters: from Andrei Tarkovsky and Jean-Luc Godard to John Carpenter and Michael Mann, as we can see in his book of collected critical writings, Présences (Gallimard, 2009).


But how might we square Assayas’ own narrative-based, kinetic and lyrical, often spectacular films with the severe ‘anti-cinema’ lessons of Debord, Warhol and Bresson? A Post-May Adolescence is devoted to arriving at and justifying this contradiction, if a contradiction it be: beyond all doctrines and models, Assayas affirms the importance for each individual of finding his her own way to a full-blooded engagement (the May ’68 word still holds good) with politics, life, art and the world.


MORE Assayas: Demonlover, Irma Vep TV SERIES


© Adrian Martin 2012

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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