Olivier Assayas

Cinema in the Present Tense

Once a year the cinema magazine Sabzian invites a filmmaker to give a lecture on the current “State of Cinema,” accompanied by a film screening of their choosing. Olivier Assayas was scheduled to give the annual address in Belgium in June 2020, but the arrival of Covid made this impossible. The public screening of Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1975) was cancelled and Assayas instead gave his address virtually. The following text is an excerpt from that essay — Le Temps présent du cinéma / Cinema in the Present Tense — translated by Sis Matthé and presented here courtesy of Sabzian, who has made the full text of the essay available on their website, where you can also find additional resources on Assayas, dossiers on Wang Bing and Hong Sang-soo, Edward Said on Michel Khleifi’s Fertile Memory (1980), and more.

When trying to identify the place of a reformulation of cinephilia today, it is impossible not to situate it on the internet and in the latter’s redefinition of both the viewing modes of cinema and the way in which we move through its history. It is an irrelevant commonplace and yet a truth worth mentioning that today’s generations have an infinitely wider access to history — to the entire history of cinema as well as to its present — unimaginable for pre-digital humanity, who only had access through the Cinematheque to a fraction of the masterpieces of cinema, some of them remaining perfectly unattainable.

We don’t see everything, but we have access to almost everything, free of charge even; cinephilia has dissolved into a multitude of conflicting cliques, each organized around one fragment of one glorious past, to the extent that even its symbolic value continues to diminish. There are still films, often very good ones too — more good films are made today than at any other time — whose stakes play out on an ad hoc basis: will it win the Oscar, the Palm, the Lion, the Bear, will it be nominated? While filmmakers as auteurs are fading. Who today knows how to follow the thread of an oeuvre, to understand what is at work in an artist’s search, however senseless and futile? It’s all about this film right here, and after that everything starts all over again. In the digital fragmentation and its dilution of theoretical pertinence today, the entire legacy of auteur cinephilia is pretty much called into question.

Which theory is entering into dialogue with cinema in the present, which theory is accepted, has the right to help shape the inspiration of filmmakers? To whom is one accountable? I am a little afraid of the answer, to be honest.

It seems to me that it is sociology — it is easier to say the political — and communitarianism. But is this a good or a bad thing? And am I not venturing onto fragile, shifting sands? I believe there is an injunction to address these questions, even if I doubt that I will be able to formulate a satisfactory, let alone consensual, answer.

We know the evils of our time. Global warming, ecological disaster, an insane increase in social inequalities, the impossibility of managing migratory flows and, above all, the inability of those who govern, of states, to give a satisfactory or even vaguely reassuring response to these anxiety-inducing subjects, not to mention wars, epidemics or unemployment. Conversely, it seems as if the self-destructive opposition to the apprehension of these evils has in our democracies become an electoral asset.

It is only natural that filmmakers are citizens too and thus legitimately involved in the issues society is facing. But the political is the domain of the complex, and it does not necessarily produce good cinema. What’s more, fictional cinema struggles — which is normal — to grasp social issues that are analyzed or represented much more adequately by publishing, the press or even documentaries, longer and therefore more legitimate forms that possess the ability to treat fragile or sensitive subjects with the necessary rigour, precision and exactingness that cinema can only very exceptionally offer.

From my point of view, the sociological is a bad branch to catch hold of, not least because simplifications, amalgamations, and dramatization risk cutting out the facts, reducing them to comfortable generalities and resulting in an interpretation that is both erroneous and harmful.

I do not wish to criticize or delegitimize a cinema that aims to be accountable to the state and its citizens; on the contrary, it is perfectly commendable. I just want to say that I find it very difficult, and sometimes even dangerous, and that I do not at any rate discern a key there that would allow us to think contemporary, let alone future, cinema in a satisfactory or stimulating way.

What to think of communitarianism, which has become a factor influencing our societies and which in turn examines cinema for lack of being examined by it, which would seem more fundamental, riskier and more satisfying anyway to our minds; I have always been convinced that it is the role of cinema and art to examine society and certainly not to be examined by it, especially not in terms of censorship, the eternal hallmark of totalitarian regimes.

I was an adolescent in the 1970s. I have often repeated this and will continue to do so because this period, and its questioning of all society’s values, left an indelible mark on my life. I lived and was actively involved in a counterculture that advocated the liberation of everyday life, and I was engaged in forms of leftism that promoted individual liberation rather than collectivist utopias and support for authoritarian or even genocidal regimes. I have seen the liberation of homosexuality in words and deeds, I have seen the revival of feminism and its decisive victories. I have seen the invention of a Franco-Maghrebi identity, of a culture originating in the districts the African immigrants were relegated to, encouraged to settle in France in order to serve as labour for Gaullist France’s great infrastructure works.

I was less interested, afterwards, in the identitarian drift that followed from these steps forward, nor in their political or ideological instrumentalization. Perhaps they were fatal; perhaps they were necessary, I don’t know. I have personally never thought of my relationship with others in terms of the colour of their skin or their sexual preferences. As for my relationship with women and feminism — which would be my lifelong favourite political party because I am utterly convinced that toxic masculinity has become the source of all evil in our world — it was Groucho Marx who gave the best definition when he said that man is a woman like any other. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

I add these more personal comments not just to define who I am but, in this instance, “where I’m speaking from”, to use the jargon of the political years. I personally think that cinema can be communitarian — I do not think it is intended that way, but why not — but this communitarianism is nevertheless entirely unsuited to taking the place of the absence of theoretical thinking on cinema, which we have to take stock of today.

I will have to address Hollywood. I have practically nothing positive to say about it except that this industry’s prosperity and new modalities do not delight me, they frighten or even repulse me, because what they have recently produced is diametrically opposed to what I loved or admired about the American cinema that, throughout film history, provided this art with several of its greatest masters.

We are witnessing the triumph of series, the distribution of films through digital platforms and the confiscation of screens in the service of (mostly Disney-studio) franchises, whose hegemony now seems absolute.

Why take the trouble to finance a film that is not meant to provoke a sequel, a spin-off, or another film “in the universe of” and whose unsure relationship with the public is unpredictable? For a long time now, in Hollywood, the territory of film has been shrinking. To the benefit of an independent cinema forced to make do with ridiculous budgets — and thus limited in its practicing of the contemporary syntax of cinema, which is reserved for major productions.

And Netflix, and Disney Plus, and Apple, etc.: hasn’t cinema taken refuge there? Haven’t Alfonso Cuarón, Martin Scorsese, the Safdie brothers, and Noah Baumbach found political asylum there? I have even been there myself, since my film Wasp Network is distributed by Netflix in most places, except where it had been bought in advance — first of all in France, where it was an honest public success on the big screen. No other distributor offered the producers of the film a viable alternative.

If there is one issue cinema-thinking — which could use some sorely missing theoretical tools — comes up against, it is the confusion generated by the profound transformation of film distribution and financing. First of all, do the platforms intend to finance ambitious contemporary auteur cinema, beyond the incidental effect of fame that comes with the rivalry in this field of newcomers determined to take over a large share of the market? In other words, will Netflix, in need of prestige and symbolic value today, still need it next year or the year after? Not really, I guess. As for the studios, will they return to film as a business model or is the deviation towards franchises on the one hand and series on the other definitive?

In short, is there still room for a free cinema on the big screen? I believe that if this window is not closing, it is at least shrinking before our eyes. The only real model left is an independent, radical, daring cinema, alas with limited distribution.

Am I comfortable with that? Not really. I come from the visual arts originally; I was influenced by contemporary poetry, and my musical tastes have most often led me to artists on the margins’ margins, not to mention my aesthetic, philosophical, and political convictions, which are of a terribly minority nature within my generation. But if I chose to devote myself to cinema, it was because of its majority status, because it was the last art form that profoundly resonated with society, that wasn’t trapped in its stronghold, that hadn’t suffered the overwhelming deviation of the visual arts, which opted for an alliance with triumphant financial capitalism, choosing a false cynical radicalism, which Guy Debord called “state Dadaism”, meant to promote it to stratospheric heights.

The cinema that inspired me, that I loved, that I have tried to practise myself is an impure and open cinema, particularly accessible to those for whom cinema is often the only opportunity to encounter art as vital, beneficial and, why not, salutary.

Do I think, in this regard, that Alfonso Cuarón, Martin Scorsese, the Coen brothers, and so many others have been right in choosing a form of security and entrusting their films to Netflix? I don’t. I think that their films demonstrate that the cinema I believe in is alive and feasible — most of these films could have easily been financed without the help of Netflix or other platforms — and that it is the extension, the continuation of an art that is truly of our time, of our generation, that gives the most susceptible, sensitive account of the transformation of the world, of beings, of time, so many things that belong to cinema and which are in danger of getting lost or forgotten in the flow of images; and, even if I have few certainties, I am certain that this danger is very real, that facing it and persevering will unite us, however powerful the forces we have to face.

At this point, my reader has every right to ask me what this absent theory is, exactly, that cinema in the present time would need. It seems I have already evoked the indispensable back and forth between intuitive, spontaneous, uncontrolled practice, often determined by the use of new tools or new mediums, and its thought. I don’t mean to say that the development of the arts is the word of the Pythia and that it is up to critics, essayists, and certain filmmakers too, as I am doing at this very moment, to try to decipher its enigmas. But I do think it might be important, perhaps even essential, that works generate what Roberto Longhi called ekphrasis, that is to say the discourse made possible and provoked by the questions, enigmas and breakthroughs that art in its quest for life and its contradictions leaves unsolved. A writing that would be in dialogue with the artists, a revelation of the work and by this very fact an intercessor for the spectator.


I am often reminded of the title of an article by François Truffaut, ironically called ‘Clouzot at Work, or the Reign of Terror’. We have to acknowledge, as Truffaut did, the image, widespread at the time and more diffuse today, of the demiurge-filmmaker who abused his authority and power to the benefit of an unspeakable quest, an absolute as vague as it is hard to formulate, and whose whims, anger and impertinence are as many tangible expressions of it, remaining, however, inaccessible to ordinary mortals. I consider the opposite important, that filmmakers are accountable to their crew and that the quality of concentration, the richness of sharing, the clarity of intentions all form a decisive part of the collective adventure of a film shoot. I have often, whenever I had the opportunity, thanked the crew of my films and reminded them how much cinema is the sum of energies relayed by a director, whose art often depends on his ability to listen, to pay attention to ideas, to the flow of things that arises on set day after day. His talent also depends on knowing how to give rise to that. For me, it is an old and deep conviction that the best of cinema depends on the quality of everyone’s commitment to a strange undertaking which has to do with the reinvention and re-enchantment of the real, but which is also a parallel world, a parallel life in which everyone must be able to surpass themselves, to find fulfilment and, in a way, to give meaning to what is a little more than a job, the commitment of a life, an intimate quest.

This in no way means that I would renounce what I have often declared, namely that directing is first and foremost a force of disruption in the automatisms that structure the functioning of a set. It is indeed up to the mise en scène to constantly unsettle conventions and conveniences, forms that are only alive if they are constantly shaken up and questioned: and the more we shake them up, the more we refuse to content ourselves with ready-made answers, the more we put into practice the conviction that cinema can and should be a thousand things — what it was in the past or what remains to be explored, that this territory is infinite and the only one that really deserves exploring — the more chances we get to reveal the very meaning of our art and its place in the world. But none of that can be achieved alone. It needs to be extended, deepened, applied by everyone, with all attendant risks and with the exactingness necessary to realize this ambition.

This applies to all filming and to all filmmakers who have chosen to practise their art outside the laws and rules of the streaming industry and who have been able to preserve their often hard-won freedom — cinema’s supreme value — to their own benefit, of course, but also, and just as much, to the benefit of their collaborators. A film is a microcosm, all of society, every stratum is represented in it, and the same waves, the same tensions run through it, except that these values are put to the test more immediately, more urgently, on a daily basis and with immediately observable consequences. This is why I attach inestimable value to an ethical practice of cinema whose beneficial effects, pleasures as well as dangers, would be shared by all, amounting to a disalienated work at the heart of the very territory of alienation. I talked about accountability, and I believe one must first of all submit one’s work to the respect of these values.

As you can guess, I do not really like what has become of the current film industry in the hands of executives who look more like business managers produced by business schools, or of senior civil servants, who are often people of great quality but whose instincts, ambitions and imagination are a million miles away from those of the adventurers, the players and visionaries who built this cathedral we all share, the cathedral of the first century of cinema.

In this regard, I have always put my Faith in what is called independent cinema — structures whose historical models would be François Truffaut’s Les Films du Carrosse or Barbet Schroeder’s and Eric Rohmer’s Les Films du Losange. But this would disregard the work of producers who have, in the often hostile undergrowth of various film-funding bodies and in the maze of the banking system, managed to support — beyond any profit logic, happy not to be out of pocket themselves — singular, atypical works against the values of their time. Works by authentic authors who are themselves carried by nothing but their convictions, their obsessions but also their limits and their fragilities, the raw material of their work.

It is this ecosystem, rephrased time and again in different cultures and countries, more or less dependent on cinema-favourable legislation or patronage, or on nothing at all, that has kept alive reflection, research, daring and, first of all, a form of integrity that is indispensable to the best practice of cinema.

We have seen the wave of streaming cinema grow, we have seen cinema become an industry, and this industry become dominant — and I am hesitant to use the words “mind-numbing” or “alienating ”, which would have, until recently, flown quite naturally out of my pen without even feeling the need to justify it. Yet whereas, in another time, one could dream of cinema as a utopia, it seems to me that it has become perfectly dystopian and that, in the name of entertainment or whitewashed in conformism and bland good intentions, it is essentially devoted to the perpetuation and flattery of the most conventional emotions and of the lowest, if not inane, desires. In this respect, I am happy enough when a film, for lack of a concern with nature, light and the human, at least refrains from being harmful.

This is why, deep down, today, cinema must be made against cinema. Especially if it wishes to embody, within the new world of images, that which is most precious and most vital: the freedom to think, to invent, to search, to wander and to err, in short to be the antidote we need so as to preserve our faith and keep the flame alive, which it is our duty to know how to protect and transmit, generation after generation, in a battle that is never won.

March – April 2020

Translated by Sis Matthé