A tour group passes behind a kitchen furniture setup. The guide says, “And here we have two dining room chairs and a table.” They walk 180 degrees around the wooden chairs, tables, and cabinets, emerging in front of them. A drawer looms. We’re in a museum, we can tell—the D’Orsay, no less—because of the platform the stuff is placed on, and because other objects sit in a glass case opposite them. The group’s members stare at the goods, only half-listening to their guide; a young man’s cellphone goes off, and he walks away, telling his date, “Almost over. We’ve done the whole place.” He’ll be happy to see whatever movie she likes, he says, and then runs after the group, moving on to the next exhibit. The furniture sits, self-sufficient, antique, forgotten, until—only gradually—its original owners walk up and stare at it. We can’t see the couple’s faces, so we don’t know what they’re thinking. The man sighs, finally. “Strange seeing it here.”
The scene glides in toward the end of Olivier Assayas’s 2008 film Summer Hours. I sat watching the film at Lincoln Plaza during its New York run in the summer of 2009, out with someone on what I hoped was a date. Up to that point I had thought that this film about a trio of siblings’ decision over what to do with their dead mother’s heirlooms was pretty good, even remarkable at points (great lighting in the country scenes), but this moment left me irretrievably shaken. Beautiful as it was, it also reminded me of my own past—the trip to the Musee D’Orsay that I had taken a few years before that, the girl I had gone with, the old life I’d lived.
I didn’t mention my memories to my maybe-date. Instead, after the movie ended, we talked about how rapidly prices rose in the modern art world, so that everything became overvalued, but then doubled back on ourselves and said that overvaluing or undervaluing a work of art meant assigning a monetary value to it to begin with. “An object can also have memory value, which you can’t fix a price tag to,” I said, and she said, “Of course, that’s obvious,” and I thought that that was what Assayas’s movies were really about—not globalization, as everyone said, nor encroaching modernity, nor the commodification and mournfully elegiac yet necessary toppling of old-world systems, but transference. Characters transfer their emotions onto objects, activities, environments. We had chosen to walk through Central Park, in homage to the trip Summer Hours takes back to its former country home at the end, and I looked suddenly up at her and couldn’t see her face, but the leaves in front of it. I looked at the leaves, then back at her mouth, then up at her glasses, then back to the leaves.
Assayas is always interested in place as much as he is in people. Boarding Gate starts as a kinky, kooky love story, but then abstracts and dissolves into Asia Argento sprinting through Hong Kong. The buildings take on a sheen they hadn’t prior. Her old lover’s dead, and now the world looks different. And then I thought about the gigantic party scene at the heart of Irma Vep. The characters are all movie people (the director, the costumer, the makeup lady, actress Maggie Cheung playing herself), but Irma Vep’s life lies in what they do when they’re not working. And as the camera whirls and swirls around the space, following people, you glimpse one woman, shifting in and out of the crowd, eyes roaming off screen in search of her crush. Characters are constantly racing after each other in his movies, and since their failure to reach other is so extraordinarily painful, the movies shift focus to the joy of the race.
Maybe that’s why Assayas kills with party scenes. At that time, in my early 20s, I was especially taken with Cold Water, where kids blast a bonfire to the tunes of Creedence, Alice Cooper, and Dylan. The shit they’re listening to rocks, but it’s vintage shit. They fetishize a time before theirs so fully and absolutely (a key scene shows a kid shows reciting a Ginsberg poem en toto) that they end up occupying a kind of weird no-space. But that no-space, for them, is better than self-space. They’re moving so fast towards music, art, and each other so that they don’t have to be by themselves.
She was eight years (at least) older than me, and (so she said) done with parties; for her a wild night was drinking three glasses of wine. I might have been with her that day in some goofball attempt to feel sophisticated, but also because I felt lonely, and because we’d formed a makeshift allegiance during our time together in graduate school. How much we had to talk about didn’t actually matter. What mattered much more was that we didn’t regard each other as fools, and so avoided looking like them.
We reached 57th and Lexington, the goodbye point, and waved to each other. Then, with a move as startling as the eruptions of Paris at Dawn’s recurring makeout sessions, she kissed me on the cheek. “Call me,” she said, then turned around before I could see her face. And I stood trembling and lost in myself, not knowing what to say, or how to reach her, so I just let her go. It was one of many instances in my life where I’ve burst out of myself for a second for someone, only to dive back down into myself again. It was exhilarating to think I was living in an Assayas film—funky punk music, hot girls, the camera having to chase after me, everything cresting with the climax of a kiss—and then safe, if a bit of a letdown, to realize that I had never left my own head.
I felt safe watching Carlos, his Summer Hours follow-up, a year later. The movie’s a globe-trotting terrorism-cum-hijacking crime story true-life thriller, very exciting, with the camera running everywhere as the main character declares the necessity of freeing the Palestinian people urgently/rapidly, and in at least four different tongues. I never particularly cared about any of the people that Carlos was murdering, nor believed that any of the film’s actors were actually terrorists, and that probably wasn’t so good, but the way Assayas showed time passing floored me. Carlos grew fatter, but kept trying to walk like a thin man; the movie wanted to cleanly cut from one standoff to another, but kept breaking down into stop-and-start fades.
I went by myself to that screening. I hadn’t talked to my Summer Hours friend in eons. Never dialed her number—I never made the time to—and in the meantime we had moved on to dating other people. The last time I saw her, in fact, was last year, a couple of months after our day in the park—late August or early September, can’t remember now. I invited her to see a new print of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. We went with a group of people, and split up a few minutes after it ended. The kiss was never mentioned. All we could talk about was how young Ava Gardner looked.
BAM’s “Post-Punk Auteur: Olivier Assayas” retrospective starts tomorrow. A full schedule can be found here.