Back and to the Left:
An Interview with Olivier Assayas
by Adam Nayman

Reverse Shot: I’d like to begin with the ending of the film, and with that very suggestive sequence of the B-movie shoot that Gilles is working on, where there are Nazis and cave girls and dinosaurs all together in one shot. It’s like history becomes a haunted house when the film cameras come out.

Olivier Assayas: Yes. But I’m also having fun representing the idea that the film industry is populated by Nazis. It was an homage to the film industry, in general. It can be seen from different angles. One angle is ultimately the autobiographical one, because that film does exist. I was not on the set when it was shot, but I was on the set of similar films made by that director, Kevin Connor, who was doing like one of them a year, like Warlords of Atlantis, and The Land That Time Forgot. They were British, cheesy B-movies, kind of tongue-in-cheek in their own way. Connor was a nice guy, he made a movie in the U.S. called Motel Hell. These really were my first jobs in filmmaking. I would get summer jobs through friends of my father who were old men by that time, and I would end up in crazy situations. I worked as a trainee with an editor who became one of the kings of the pornographic industry in France. He was assembling movies shot by Jess Franco in Spain, like The Sex Life of Frankenstein. When I worked on the Richard Fleischer film Crossed Swords, there were all these actors from another world: Charlton Heston, George C. Scott, Rex Harrison. It was shot by Jack Cardiff in Cinemascope, like in the 1950s. What I’m saying is that during my first experiences in cinema, I was confronted with something that felt to me like the distant past, like movies from another era. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It felt completely archaic. So there was this tension between my approach to cinema—and the movies I wanted to make and what attracted me to the independent American cinema of the time and the counterculture—and the movies I was working on. There was no way of reconciling them so at some point I had to make a choice.

RS: There’s also a tension between the movie Gilles is working on and the one that he goes to see at the experimental film festival. Both seem to suggest different possibilities for cinema, and different moments of realization for the character.

OA: The [experimental] film is about resurrection. It’s about bringing the past back to life, that art is about giving life to the past, and that is the beauty of filmmaking. She [his ex-girlfriend, Laure] is a ghost from his past who is alive again, and beautiful, and he finally gets to his own starting point. I don’t take him to a place where he knows he is going to make movies, but maybe his foot is ready to take a first step in that direction.

RS: It’s significant that the girl in that film is not Christine, but Laure, who is arguably a less important character, and maybe not who the audience would expect to be present for such an obvious grace note.

OA: She’s more symbolic. She is Gilles’s muse, the girl who eggs him on and takes him to a place where he can become an artist.

RS: In that case, it would seem that your—or Gilles’s— definition of a muse is somebody who seems superior and intimidating, somebody who makes the artist feel insecure. Christine loves Gilles without complication, but Laure is very judgmental about his work and more elusive in her affections.

OA: Laure is about lifting him up and pushing him to do better. He follows her. When he loses her he kind of loses the thread of his life. Somehow he realizes that he can find that thread again in cinema. It’s an epiphany.

RS: And it’s a happy ending.

OA: Yes. It’s a happy ending. It’s a weird happy ending.

RS: To circle back to the beginning of the film, I thought the scene where Gilles and Christine clash with the riot police was extraordinary, not only in setting the scene historically but in showing how shared experiences in youth create deep relationships. I’m thinking of them in the aftermath, huddled together, breathing hard, friends for life.

OA: It’s the sense of bonding, of sharing your youth, that is I think similar with every generation. But that generation was totally defined by crazy politics. It was also defined, I would say, by a very specific form of communication. After the film ends, we could say that it very quickly will become the communication age. In the years before the film is set, I think people trusted the mainstream media, the media of the majority, they listened to the radio, watched TV, read the newspaper, and they relied on that information. Afterwards, it became something else entirely, this culture of instant communication. [My film] is in the middle, in this weird moment, where you don’t trust the media: they’re bourgeois, they lie. You don’t listen to the radio, which, in any case, would not be playing the kind of music that you would want to hear anyway. There is no TV show that is playing anything that you would be even remotely interested in. The mainstream is out of touch with how the world is changing. You’re getting your information from the free press, from poetry, from record covers . . . a form of communication that is verbal but also nonverbal, and connected in a profound way with art. So art is not just a solitary pursuit but also something collective, something that unites that generation.

RS: And yet art is also a case of individual expression, which suggests something about the fissures that form in the group. Gilles doesn’t want to make collectivist cinema. He wants to be an artist on his own terms.

OA: They also break apart because they are all experimenting with potential, with their own potential and the potential of the time. It’s a generation that experimented with every aspect of their lives. Youth is about experimenting. In the 1970s, you had nothing solid you could lean on, or rely on. Society was bad, it was evil, you were dropping out, you didn’t trust anything. You felt like your generation was reinventing the world.

RS: But wouldn’t you say that it was ever thus?

OA: I would say it is less so now. I don’t want to say that it’s all been said and done. People now are not dealing with a new situation, they’re dealing with a society and with values that have been around for a long time. They know where the boundaries are. Getting drunk, taking crazy drugs, raising mayhem—that’s what youth is about. But there’s something more gratuitous, maybe. Drugs have become a way of disconnecting from reality, as opposed to heightening it. The seventies generation was discovering free sex, and maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think that they were obsessed with it at all. I don’t remember kids my age being obsessed with sex. I was a shy kid anyway . . . but the guys around me and the girls around me were shy too. Now sex obsesses teenagers. That’s because of the Internet, of pornography online, they’re raised on this excess . . .

RS: Well, you’ve already made that movie…

OA: Yes, I made that movie. What I’m saying is it’s a very different thing with this generation. Movies dealing with teenagers now are only about sex. Sex was a very minor part of our lives. I’m not saying that we were right, maybe we were wrong. I’m sure there were great things to be done, we just did not do them.

RS: In terms of what your characters actually end up doing —their militancy, their protest, their defiance—would you agree that the film has a certain ambivalence? And is it reflective of your own politics, then or now?

OA: I think that, like the character in the film, I was a child in many ways. My father gave me a political education. He had been a militant anti-fascist in Italy, very much involved in that cause, as a leftist, at a time when it was really dangerous. And he was an anti-Leninist as well, closer to the ideas of somebody like George Orwell. What he passed on to me is a kind of left-wing antitotalitarianism. To me, anything that smelled of totalitarian politics was evil, because those were the ideas that fucked up the revolutions of the 20th century. So when I had kids my age explaining to me that the Cultural Revolution in China was this great hope, I knew that it was really a disaster on a monumental scale. Like, if you start believing in that crap, how are you going to get it right in France?

RS: The film seems to support the development of a certain skepticism, although not at the expense of one’s ideals.

OA: It’s important to operate ethically and to learn to think for yourself. It’s what Gilles does. He has to find his own way of thinking, with some clarity, outside the timeline his generation.

RS: Was it important for you that he gets there? Or, rather, considering that this is an autobiographical film, was it important for you that you represent yourself getting to that point of enlightenment and self-realization?

OA: I think I made this film to make sense of how I got there. It’s a process of self-rediscovery, to figure out how I found my way through these very weird times, and to save my skin.

RS: I have to ask about the exchange about “revolutionary aesthetics,” which is quite funny, and which seems to be as much about the film that we’re watching as the films being made by the people onscreen.

OA: Those really were the kind of questions that people were dealing with. It was an every day concern, you know. Those questions were asked in a very dogmatic way: politics became totally ideological. You couldn’t do this, you couldn’t do that: there was a total blindness to actual reality. But still, whatever I have done in films, I am defined by those questions. I gave a different answer. I have beliefs that have taken me to a totally different place. But the questions are still valid. At the same time, there is a maybe a certain irony in the writing, about the naiveté of a generation, and how it was formulated . . . but I ‘m not making fun of them.

RS: That tendency to make period pieces where we’re cued to know more than the characters, to have 20/20 hindsight and to feel superior to their values or beliefs is very popular. You see it on TV (like on Mad Men) and in cinema all the time.

OA: I made this film because people have been making fun of the seventies. And I think that’s because the dreams people had at that time are still considered a threat. I would never make fun of kids who rejected the material values of the world, and who considered that life was about some sort of political or spiritual path. They were dealing with abstractions, and I do believe in abstractions. I don’t think there’s anything too romantic in the film, either. I was trying as much as I could to strip that away, because I have already done the romantic version of this film, in Cold Water and Desordre. I used the same elements, things that I lived through, and inscribed them in narratives that are in some ways more conventional, which was the way I functioned at that time, and I am really happy with those films. But in terms of the way that I wrote and conceived them, this one is very different. It’s not a classic narrative, and every single moment that I could have emphasized and exaggerated I attempted to tone down. Because that’s how I experienced them! And ultimately, if there’s any emotion that creeps in, it sort of happens on its own terms.