Preparing for a weeklong run of Olivier Assayas' Carlos — both in its full 319-minute glory and, for the impatient, in the just-under-three-hour recut — the American Cinematheque warms up with refresher screenings of two of Assayas' key films, 1996's Irma Vep and 2002's Demonlover. It's not much of a stretch to view all three works together as a loose trilogy, different approaches to the same themes: globalism as a business, cultural and cinematic force, the allure of revolutionary technology (in at least two senses of “revolutionary”) and the eternal standoff between idealism and hedonism.
The same outline three times: A multilingual protagonist with geographically ambiguous origins is recruited by shadowy, globally financed interests, then unceremoniously forced out before actually accomplishing anything. In Irma Vep, it's Maggie Cheung playing “Maggie Cheung,” who's flown to Paris from Hong Kong to star in a remake of 1915's Les Vampires and then forced out for a French actress. With Truffaut's alter ego Jean-Pierre Léaud as the director, and a long sequence in which a French journalist babbles about how his cinema is dead, while John Woo's about to rule the world, it's as much an index to mid-'90s cinephile wars as a comedy about a film's disintegration.
In Demonlover, Connie Nielsen's indeterminately European corporate mover and shaker tries to negotiate cutthroat negotiations for global hentai rights and ends up a literal slave of her corporation. In both Irma Vep and Demonlover, entertainment is very serious business — much more so than slack end-of-'90s Western politics — to the extent that people disappear, are killed and have mental breakdowns over it.
Carlos' chronology ends with the protagonist's arrest in 1994, two years before Assayas launched this line of inquiry with Irma Vep. By then, global politics had ceded the stage of world importance to the culture industry, and Assayas' films began to look outside France at a new reality.
Carlos tells the same story, this time with geopolitical ramifications: In the '70s, a Venezuelan born in France rents himself out as a for-hire terrorist for anyone in the Middle East or Europe — who can pay. By the '90s, his usefulness expended, he's tossed aside, his brand of headline-grabbing, terrorist-as-celebrity archetype thoroughly out of date. Irma Vep and Demonlover made it impossible to firmly separate reality and dreams, a balance Carlos maintains between fact-based fiction (sourced from meticulously researched accounts from witnesses) and imaginative conjecture.
These three films are stylistically of a piece with all of Assayas' work: fluid, restless cameras scouring translucent surfaces for any cinematic reflections, mostly scored to post-punk. Irma Vep was his first international sensation, which is counterintuitive, considering how insularly cinephilic the film is on the surface. Demonlover, booed at its premiere and opaque to pretty much everyone on first pass, is clarified in the context of Assayas' filmography: It's his dreamiest, most viscerally hypnotic look at familiar terrain.
Assayas, in New York to promote Carlos, is a hyperliterate former Cahiers du Cinema writer. He sits tautly perched, ready to discuss anything with an intellectual force and verbal speed; his italics are audible. As a former critic, he's ready to see connections: Irma Vep was “pretty much a starting point,” he notes, despite its origins as a film written on the fly to kill time between productions. “It's the first film I made where I was using the multilingual, multicultural elements, where I kind of mixed fantasy and reality.”
That mix “made it possible to imagine a film like Demonlover, where again I was connecting hybrid elements: actors, spaces, layers of images that somehow did not belong together.”
For Assayas, images carry more weight than words, even (especially) when the subject is revolution. In 1998's Late August, Early September, Mathieu Amalric's ex scoffs at his repeated invocation of “time, history, memory.”
“Those are just words,” she insists, to his obvious pain.
There's a hint here of, if not a repudiation, then at least a distancing from another famous former Cahiers critic who turned to filmmaking. “I absolutely admire [Jean-Luc] Godard, he's a genius and hugely influential and so on and so forth,” Assayas says. “But I never sensed I could function in this kind of collage approach to cinema, where you take sentences from philosophers, writers and poets and put them together and trust that something of the power of the words will come across to the audience.”
He sees himself as a classicist. While Godard “always reminds you of the superstructure of the film, I've always been more concerned with erasing the structure.”
Which is not to say that Assayas is at a loss when asked to use language to define the starting point for his films' concerns. “One of the defining themes is addiction: addiction to drugs, addiction to images, addictions in general,” he notes. “We are all part of it.”
First comes the seduction, then the self's erasure; the arena changes, but the story stays the same.
OLIVIER ASSAYAS TRIBUTE, WITH SCREENINGS OF IRMA VEP AND DEMONLOVER | Oct. 21, 7:30 p.m. | Egyptian Theatre | americancinematheque.com