Paris at Dawn screens tonight at BAM, as their complete retrospective of the films of Olivier Assayas continues.
The camera is the main character in an Olivier Assayas film. It’s not an observer so much as an active, aggressive sprinter racing through the world, trying to find something to settle on. In his new movie Carlos, the hero wants to be a part of a successful venture, and the camera keeps racing from one blasted attempt to the other as he fails to find one. But for Assayas the world was moving from the beginning. In Carlos perpetual motion mirrors shifting political schemes, world governments and their allegiances changing around the main character; in his 1991 film Paris at Dawn, the roving camera signifies social movement, as its heroine/actress/model/druggie/doomed youth/martyr shifts from one man to another.
Assayas, a onetime Cahiers du Cinéma writer, arose in the wake of the French New Wave, and critics often interpret his films as simultaneously paying homage to and rejecting it. Certainly Assayas makes that association in Paris by casting Truffaut’s screen alter ego Jean-Pierre Léaud in one of the leading roles. Nearly 15 years after his last Truffaut film, Leaud appeared in Assayas’s film with chin fat, red eyes, and a touch of gray in his hair. He plays the girl’s sugar daddy, trying to hook her up with acting jobs, the scenes between them often awkward and uncomfortable as he tries to keep control. She’s interested in his son, much closer to her age, and you realize around the same time that Leaud’s character does that he doesn’t belong in this movie. Truffaut said that he stopped making films about Leaud’s overgrown adolescent character, Antoine Doinel, because the character would stop charming and seem pathetic once he got to be too old. Assayas not only agrees, but demonstrates.
Yet the film also carries an older influence than the New Wave. The lead in Max Ophuls’s 1955 film Lola Montes says, “Life is motion,” coming in a film where the camera rarely stops. Louise (Judith Godrèche), digs it, and like the model Lola, goes from an older man to a younger to an older, it being self-evident at times that she’s not thinking past money for the next drug score. The movie’s pointless, relentless energy mirrors hers, the camera swirling around in some scenes for seemingly no reason save that Assayas wanted to photograph them. But there is a point to the seeming pointlessness, which is that, like Lola, Louise finds her purpose in motion. The camera spins around her even while she talks about the thought of submission; the scene of her rejecting Léaud plays with the sound of a train rushing behind them.
The paradox of travel is that it’s supposed to comfort you by making you give up your current comforts. Louise searches for drugs and for love, but also for herself. “What does interest you apart from yourself?” she asks Léaud’s boy. The answer for him, as for her, as for many Assayas characters, lies in figuring out where they fit, who they fit with, and how.