Olivier Assayas's films are both strange and engrossing, so much so that they may evade broad comprehension on the first go-round. Whereas instigating French new wave directors like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut played fast and loose with tone and narrative structure to create jarring juxtapositions, Assayas does so to effect a subtler, more mysterious sense of illumination. We frequently lose our bearings in cinema Assayas as in two poetic refractions of the same scene in Irma Vep (1996) and Demonlover (2002): the female lead donning an alter ego, scurrying through hallways, committing a crime in a space that seems to overlap reality, dream, and fantasy but there is always an underlying trust in the director's guiding hand, earned by his hyperkinetic narration and apparent devotion to his actors. Assayas's résumé does indeed resemble the archetypal new wave trajectory (from Cahiers du Cinéma critic to what Manny Farber calls a termite filmmaker), but the connection runs deeper still: like his forebears, he makes films about what it means to live in the modern world.
It's a world that invariably entails the restless confusion and complex social systems of the globalized marketplace. He arrives in this slipstream through any number of inputs. For starters, his films are multilingual, multilocation affairs (in this respect they resemble spy thrillers, though it's only Assayas's most recent film, Boarding Gate, that feels pointedly designed along genre lines). Second, his plots usually revolve around business people. Even in Les Destinées (2000), an intimate fin de siècle period piece, a lapsed minister struggles for "new methods and new machines" to capture the American market for porcelain. This concern for France's mediated role in global trade it supplies luxury items in Les Destinées, film production in Irma Vep, and Internet pornography in Demonlover is a constant in Assayas's work, as are characters who are swallowed whole by an abstract marketplace. In Irma Vep, the film that still seems like Assayas's most intuitive work, it's a film director (played by new wave favorite Jean-Pierre Léaud) who succumbs to the impossibilities of postmodern enterprise, in this case remaking a French classic (Louis Feuillade's Les Vampires) with an actress from Hong Kong (Maggie Cheung).
Film Comment critic Amy Taubin is right to point out that Boarding Gate is "closer to Feuillade than [Assayas's] Irma Vep," though it seems to me that this is as much a matter of the film's riveting embodiment of Feuillade's metaphor of society as so many trapdoors and secret passageways as it is "because [Boarding Gate's Asia] Argento is a contemporary Musidora [the star of Les Vampires]." Feuillade confined his lucid vision to the backstreets of Paris, whereas Assayas snaps between the City of Light and Hong Kong. More disconcertingly, he evokes virtual realities as well. In Irma Vep and Demonlover, alter egos take on a confusing, extrareal presence befitting the Internet age. Compulsively drawn to modern, floating spaces, Assayas frequently sets his action in glassy airports and offices. In this respect, the director's use of Brian Eno's ambient music, in Boarding Gate, seemed a long time coming, though Sonic Youth's harmonics had previously supplied the same glide to Irma Vep and Demonlover.
Of course, all of these touches are only so much window dressing for Assayas's mesmerizing female leads. Godard's dictum that cinema is a matter of "a girl and a gun" falls short with Assayas: for this director it takes atmosphere and an actress.