Sometimes it is hard for me to make sense of a specific text without referencing another, finding a context or comparing its ideas to those of a different author. Olivier Assayas, whether he is telling the story of a woman fleeing a country after murdering her lover (Asia Argento in Boarding Gate), the struggle of two companies to get hold of a new technology that will be the future of their business (Connie Nielsen and Gina Gershon in demonlover) or the movement of a Venezuelan terrorist through countries, conflicts and shifting/disappearing ideologies (Édgar Ramírez' in Carlos), always succeeds in portraying a world in which borders between countries become meaningless, and differences between cultures still hold potential for conflict, but mostly only provide a different backdrop (architecture, language, food) for the different kinds of negotiations that take place in them. His protagonists move, legally and illegally, across these borders. A day that begins in the States often ends in Paris, Tokyo, Berlin or Hong Kong. The agents of this movement seem to form a class of their own, disconnected from what might be described as conventional national citizens, and their trades are the carriers of transformation (of society, or a particular business, of the changing face of politics and conflict): business men and women with ever-changing affiliations, artists creating the products the companies compete about, criminals, or any combination of these.
This description would also fit the novels of William Gibson, especially his latest three (Pattern Recognition, Spook Country and Zero History), which were less concerned with world-building than his previous two trilogies. Both Assayas and Gibson paint a picture of the collaboration between artists, the companies always searching for the next trend, and successfully, even though it seems unlikely, portray ties to criminal organisations and what remains of national interests in a world in which nations are becoming less and less relevant, at least for the character they are concerned with.
"No one sees anything. Ever. They watch... But they don't understand."
Demonlover is about the struggle for a new kind of technology and the transformation of individuals and society technology facilitates. Diane (Connie Nielsen) negotiates the rights for a new kind of 3D-technology that will change how pornography is produced. She competes against other characters whose allegiances aren't clear in the beginning: Gina Gershon's Elaine might work for a distribution company, but she is also connected to Diane's competitors and a website called The Hellfire Club, which offers its users the real-life realization of sadistic fantasies with real women, blurring the line between reality and fiction (until the movie itself, in its conclusion, points out that there is no fiction whatsoever behind The Hellfire Club, and removes the comfortable illusion created by television and computer screens). It also removes the idea of civilized business and trade, as the struggle for the technology becomes, literally, violent, and the women in their business-suit facades start to fight it with knives and guns. There seem to be no outside forces regulating this commerce: the state plays no role, and people moving effortlessly between countries and allegiances disappear into the void.
Boarding Gate is even more complex since the character's motivations and connections to each other mostly remain a mystery to the viewer. Sandra (Asia Argento, in an incredible performance) murders her sadistic boyfriend (Michael Madsen) who pimped her out to gain information but is now unwilling to provide her with the capital to open a night club in Beijing. She then flees to Hong Kong with the help of her lover (Carl Ng), but finds herself in a web of conflicting personal and business interests (although the latter always trumps the former), all of which almost get her killed. Finally, she meets a mysterious woman claiming to be a designer, but obviously much more than that (Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, obviously the perfect person for this role), who provides her with a new identity to start a new life in Shanghai, although the film leaves her there, at the boarding gate to her new identity and with no indication whether she has finally escaped the intransparent interests of others.
Carlos is a biography of the Venezuelan terrorist, from his beginnings in the early 1970s to his demise as an arms trader, serving whichever sides pays most, in the 1990s. It follows his movement through nations and conflicts, his alliances with Palestinian organizations (his uneasy relationship with PFLP leader Hadie Waddad drives the first half of the series), the RAF and its several offsprings, and his slowly disappearing ideology, which seems to be less of a motivator for his actions, but a justification to himself and others, and a vital part of the creation of his legend. Carlos is conscious of how important his image is, and he thrives for power - the power to make his own decisions, the power to decide who to work with, the power to organize his own "events" without outside interference. Assayas examines how his legend was created, and how consciously he shaped the media's image of him as a person and his actions. The second part of the series is almost entirely concerned with the 1975 raid on the OPEC headquarters in Vienna (blissfully actually shot in Vienna rather than Budapest or Bratislava, although this leads to slight historical inaccuracies like a kebab stand), from the planning to the odyssey of the plane trying to find a port that will accept the terrorists and provide a safe haven from criminal justice (including a fictional version of both Bruno Kreisky and an awkward Austrian interior minister Otto Rösch, shaking Carlos hand before he takes off).
In Carlos, it's the terrorist who moves, seemingly effortlessly, between cultures, and, with the help of forgery, between borders. He speaks all the languages he needs (the movie features English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Hungarian, German and Russian scenes). He is a cosmopolitan, learning to navigate different expectations and always finding an edge that advances his own agenda, always most uneasy when a person (a long list of women, among them, a German wife played by Nora von Waldstätten, who is not suited for the nomadic lifestyle) roots him to a specific place or lifestyle.
Assayas succeeds with this movie because the way it is realized fits the subject material: he works with local actors (among others, Carlos seems to feature almost every single interesting German actor and actress of late: Alexander Scheer, Julia Hummer, Katharina Schüttler, and Simon Schwarz plays the AUA-pilot who took Carlos and his group on their search for a country after the OPEC raid). He has an almost obsessive eye for the historic details.
demonlover (2002), directed by Olivier Assayas, featuring Connie Nielsen, Charles Berlin, Chloë Sevigny, Dominique Reymond, Jean-Baptiste Malartre, Gina Gershon.
Boarding Gate (2007), directed by Olivier Assayas, featuring Asia Argento, Michael Madsen, Kelly Lin, Carl Ng, Kim Gordon, Alex Descas, Joana Preiss.
Carlos (2010), directed by Olivier Assayas, featuring Édgar Ramírez, Alexander Scheer, Alejandro Arroyo, Ahmad Kaabour, Talal El-Jordi, Nora von Waldstätten, Christoph Bach, Julia Hummer, Antoine Balabane, Aljoscha Stadelmann, Zeid Hamdan, Katharina Schüttler.
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