Summer Hours

An Interview with Olivier Assayas

by Matt Mazur

14 May 2009


Favorite Female Performances

PopMatters: Since my column for PopMatters, Suffragette City, is dedicated to the role of women in film, and since writing and providing female actors with brilliant parts is something you’re very good at, I’d like to ask you what are some of your favorite female film performances?

Assayas: (laughing) Well, that is a very complex question. To me it is difficult to give you a good answer here, because a lot of my movies have been determined by the central women. I made a movie with Asia Argento. I made a couple of movies with Maggie Cheung. This one, you know, has three different, important characters that are all from different generations. There is Edith Scob, Juliette Binoche, and Alice de Lencquesaing. To me it’s individuals that inspire me to see films. I would not have made Boarding Gate if it had not been inspired by Asia Argento, as an individual, not as a woman. It’s just the person she is and her modernity. She embodies something that’s just so contemporary and has such a strong way, and she embodies such an interesting relationship to cinema. It’s exciting for a filmmaker.

And the same for Maggie Cheung, because she is someone who is between different cultures. With her I’ve been able to make movies that deal with the interconnectedness of cultures, because I was inspired by that individual. To me, it’s not about ‘men’ or ‘women’, it’s about what gets you going, in terms of writing, in terms of making a film. I’ve been extremely lucky, because there is one American actress I admire, that’s Maggie Gyllehaal, I worked with her in a segment in a collective movie called Paris je t’aime, and I hope I can work with her again because she has something so specific, so alive. She is a very inspiring, modern actress. 

PopMatters: Cries and Whispers is my favorite film. I felt as though Summer Hours’ themes of death, sibling rivalry, and the division of possessions that no one is really attached to, were reflected somewhat in Summer Hours, right down to the country home setting and the dismissal of the family’s housekeeper who gets to choose one piece of memorabilia to take with her. What are some of your favorite Bergman moments? I know you must have plenty…

Assayas: (laughing) Yes, I do! I think I would not be making the movies I am making if it were not for Bergman. I met him in the early ‘90s and I made a book of conversations with him. He’s just one of the great filmmakers, ever. I think Scenes from a Marriage is a film that amazes me and intimidates me. It’s like the ultimate movie about a couple. When you watch that movie, the complexity, the scope of it, it’s such a universal theme. Once in a while, I think ‘yeah, I should make a movie about a couple’, but as a modern film about a couple, it kind of exhausts the subject. It’s terrifying, because if you want to deal with the same thing…

His last film Saraband, is just otherworldly. It’s filmmaking on a level that I can’t even. I suppose that Winter Light is just one of my favorite films. Fanny and Alexander. Persona, it’s just so influential for me. When you make movies, it’s not so much about being inspired or influenced by a filmmaker, it’s the fact that they have made movies that give you the notion that that specific thing can be reached by cinema. The take cinema so far, they just go so deep within the human soul, that it just gives you confidence that it can be done. You just hope and pray that you can achieve a fraction of what they have achieved. For me, Bergman has been like that.

* * *

Assayas is currently filming Ilich – Story of Carlos, based on the life of Venezuelan revolutionary Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, the head of a global terrorist ring that raided OPEC headquarters in 75. Summer Hours opens in limited release May 15th.

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