Aside from having David Fincher on hand himself, it’s hard to imagine anyone better suited to offer insights into 2007’s “Zodiac” than Olivier Assayas. The Cahiers du Cinéma critic-turned-filmmaker just wrapped his own supersized adaptation of a violent true tale, “Carlos,” a five and a half hour epic about terrorist/revolutionary Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, better known as Carlos the Jackal.
Assayas’ film premiered at Cannes last month before hitting French TV as a miniseries — it’s slated for a theatrical release in the U.S., presumably with at least one intermission for the sake of audience bladders, this fall. “Zodiac,” shown last night in the 162-minute director’s cut, was one of the director’s two picks to screen and discuss at BAMcinemaFEST, where he was joined by critic Kent Jones.
Speaking to the distinctive structure of Fincher’s film, Assayas noted that “This is a narrative that is determined by facts, by the randomness, the twists and turns of time and history and fate. It’s very faithful to the actual facts — every single murder or attempted murder is described in a way that is determined by the fact that there has been a witness. There is an obvious original description on which the filmmaker builds.”
His approach to “Carlos” was similar, “in the sense that I was not concerned with the logic of how you tell a story in cinema, or how you move from one scene to the other. It was determined by how accurate I could be in describing this or that event.”
Accuracy and how much added motivation can be layered on characters drawn from real people led someone in the audience to point out that “Zodiac” is a film that’s largely absent of psychology, and to ask how Assayas approached Carlos, a character motivated by politics, in that sense. “In the film I made there’s very little psychology,” he responded, “because I believe that accumulating facts ends up drawing a portrait. It doesn’t give simple answers, but it gives complexity. Fact is fascinating. It’s extraordinary, it’s stuff you wouldn’t dream inventing. It has so many intricacies, it moves in such crazy ways. I was just fascinated by the facts, and I would use as little psychology and invention as I could.”
Regarding “Zodiac,” Assayas claimed that “to me this movie does to genre filmmaking what ‘L’Avventura’ did to narrative cinema in the 1960s, in the sense that in ‘L’Avventura,’ all of a sudden, the central character disappears, and you’re just left with abstract issues of what was really going on in life around that character.”
“Here you have the notion that everything is in place for a classic narrative — a serial killer, the cops, a smart guy from everyday life, the ciphers. Everything should fall in place and there should be a resolution, and here you’re only left with question mark after question mark, which ultimately is what real life is about, and its very rarely acknowledged by cinema.”
Finally, he pointed out that “Zodiac” is in many ways a fascinating flip side to Fincher’s earlier study of a murderer: “What amazed me at the time and still does is the connection with ‘Se7en,’ because it’s like the anti-‘Se7en.’ It’s this incredible exercise in dialectics. In American cinema, I don’t see an equivalent.”
“The director who made ‘Se7en’ — using all the elements that came to be expected from that type of genre movie, completely a fantasy notion of what a serial killer is about, a movie that has all the elements of classic Hollywood narrative culture — would a few years later would make this movie that is the absolutely opposite of it, and that doesn’t play games with what evil is about, but somehow acknowledges evil as something that floats around with no simple resolution.”
[Photos: Kent Jones and Olivier Assayas at BAMcinemaFEST; “Carlos,” IFC Films, 2010; “Zodiac,” Paramount Pictures, 2007]