Many film-makers dream of their name becoming its own adjective. Hitchcockian, Tarantinoesque, Lynchian: all terms (some of them even validated by the Oxford English Dictionary) that brand the signature aesthetic, tone and/or thematic fixations of one director and his various imitators. Not every great film-maker is suitable for this treatment, however: it would be difficult to adjectivise the French director Olivier Assayas, and not just because “Assayasesque” is rather a mouthful.
Forty years into his career, Assayas’s work can loosely be characterised by his cool, elegant formal style, but you’d be stretching to find many throughlines in an oeuvre that runs the gamut from muscular genre workouts to brittle comedies of manners, from tender naturalism to whirling avant-garde experimentation. He’s no workaday journeyman, but it’s clear he’d rather carve out an identity through contrast.
Assayas’s latest film finds him on the straight and narrow. Having done the festival rounds last year, Wasp Network was released directly to Netflix yesterday – slightly ironic, since it’s about as glossy, multiplex-ready an entertainment as he’s ever made. A true-life thriller based on the story of a Cuban spy ring infiltrating anti-Castro terror networks in 1990s Florida, it’s got beefy, suspenseful action, slick, panoramic cinematography and an almost absurdly attractive star cast including Penélope Cruz, Gael García Bernal, Édgar Ramírez and Ana de Armas, all in fine fettle. And unlike Carlos (2010), Assayas’s superbly obsessive Carlos the Jackal biopic which marked his last foray into this realm of genre storytelling, it’s not five hours long: as a weekend Netflix watch over takeaway pizza and beer, it does a bang-up job.
Which is not to say it’s top-form Assayas. He handles the mechanics of a spy story with sleek elan, but the film’s political and character interests lie on the surface: you can practically feel him straining to burrow into assorted intriguing subplots and sidebars, held back by the leash of a two-hour running time. Perhaps, like Carlos – which you can find in all its glory on iTunes, albeit in three separately charged parts – Wasp Network had dreams of being a miniseries. It’s gripping enough as is, but I could wallow in it for longer.
It left me hungry to revisit Assayas’s best films across the rangy spectrum of his career, not all of which is well-served by streaming services in the UK. If you’re hoping to catch up with his work from the 80s and early 90s, you’re out of luck. (Though for physical media loyalists, the recent Criterion reissue of his lovely, raw teen study Cold Water and Arrow’s The Early Films of Olivier Assayas – only two features included, but both excellent – provide a good starting point.)
I was pleased, however, to find Irma Vep (1996), his wild, sexy mashup of cinematic references and registers, available on the BFI Player. Casting Hong Kong action goddess Maggie Cheung as a version of herself in a sharp, increasingly deranged satire of France’s patriarchal film industry, it’s Assayas at his wittiest and most freewheeling. Follow it up with Demonlover (available on Amazon), perhaps his least categorisable provocation, which blends neo-noir stylings with technolust of various types. The film’s labyrinthine navigation of the early-00s digital pornography industry might seem something of a cultural snapshot these days, though its fierce anti-capitalist outlook and anarchic, screens-upon-screens film-making still feel cutting-edge.
If you want a lighter, less confrontational companion piece to Irma Vep, Mubi’s new Library offers you unlimited access to Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), a breezy meditation on actorly image and insecurity, and a veritable paean to Assayas’s recent muse Juliette Binoche – even if it’s Kristen Stewart, as the long-suffering assistant to Binoche’s anxious arthouse diva, who walks off with the film. In my recent column on the Mubi Library, I already pledged my devotion to Assayas and Binoche’s first collaboration, 2008’s perfectly in-season Summer Hours; last year’s Non-Fiction (on Curzon Home Cinema) also pairs them to chatty, easygoing effect.
But it’s Stewart’s mystique that seems to bring out Assayas’s most daring side. My favourite recent film of his remains Personal Shopper (2016), his frosty but unexpectedly moving millennial-generation ghost story, built perfectly around the star’s aloof, haunted screen presence – and free to stream on Amazon Prime. It barely exists in the same universe as Wasp Network, either spiritually or stylistically, but that’s exactly what makes Assayas’s film-making so rewarding to follow.
More titles new to streaming this week
Autumn de Wilde’s exquisitely clothed Jane Austen adaptation is exhaustingly twee, cupcakey to begin with, before the spry chemistry between stars Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn comes to the fore and it charms without trying too hard.
A Foreign Affair
A handsome Masters of Cinema package for an undervalued Billy Wilder film from 1948, which undercuts its airy American-abroad romantic comedy with cynical, vinegary anti-Nazi satire. Marlene Dietrich is on queenly form as a shady torch singer in postwar Berlin.
Before he became the world’s most famous mime, Marcel Marceau was a dedicated member of the French Resistance: a compelling story given somewhat stiff film treatment, though Jesse Eisenberg is surprisingly effective as Marceau.