Of the many screenplays of last year, one film’s script, Carlos by Olivier Assayas and Dan Franck, stands out as an astonishing achievement. But it was disqualified from the Oscars on account of its initial airing as a TV movie in France, even though it had a theatrical run in the U.S. In our contemporary universe of multiple distribution streams and formats, these categorical distinctions seem more and more senseless and obsolete. But the pre-emptive Oscar snub doesn’t detract from the expectional construction of the screenplay.
Carlos takes place over twenty years, is set in eleven countries and its enormous cast speaks seven different languages. The depicts the rise and tragicomic fall of a charismatic terrorist-thug in a compellingly dispassionate fashion, and transmits complex political, moral and sexual relationships with a breath-taking concision. It also surveys the entire collapse of left-wing theory and practice in Europe in the last quarter of the 20th century. If it has ever perplexed you as to why the Palestinian cause has foundered for so long, when so much of the so-called “progressive forces” in the world support it so vehemently, you might get insight from the ruthlessly clear-eyed and scrupulous script of Carlos. With friends like the activist community depicted here, you don’t need enemies.
Of the screenplays nominated this year for an Oscar, the script for Winter’s Bone, adapted by Debra Granick and Anne Rosellini from Daniel Woodrell’s novel, was the strongest for me. Part of what makes Winter’s Bone so remarkable are qualities it shares with the outstanding script of another film, White Material by Claire Denis and Marie N’Diaye. In both instances, the scripts meticulously build up a sense of jeopardy lurking off-screen, the imminent threat of violence, to fuel audience interest. They both suffuse the unfolding narrative with the temporal equivalent of off-screen space: the weight of past alliances and loyalties betrayed that have accumulated murderously over time and haunt the protagonists in the present. In other words, backstory with a vengeance.
Watching these films, you feel constant dread, the kind that you can never completely define or resolve. Both protagonists, Isabelle Huppert in White Material and Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, operate in a sort of desperate in medias res; We find them in the process of finding themselves. They have inherited a patriarchal order that is falling apart around them, but at the same time they have nothing but its old artifacts and weapons (physical competence, self-reliance, grit) to use for self-preservation. Thus, two narratives that are partly structured like old-fashioned survival Westerns (you could easily imagine Winter’s Bone directed by Anthony Mann, and White Material never strays very far from the iconography of John Ford), become profoundly weirder and more disorienting experiences.
As a summarizing epitaph for the narrative screenwriting practices that prevailed in 20l0, one could do worse than quote Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character from the beginning of Christopher Nolan’s Oscar-nominated screenplay for Inception: “the dream is collapsing.” I admired the audacity of many of Nolan’s structural conceits in Inception, layered with unapologetic bluntness into a $150 million action flick. But he made one screenwriting boo-boo that for me would have made it impossible to nominate his work for Best Screenplay. He introduces his story’s “jeopardy element” — Marion Cotillard’s femme fatale Mal — explicitly within three minutes of the beginning of the film and essentially tells us all we will ever need to know about her from that very first appearance. There is nothing at all uncanny or dream-like about a figure so thematically explicit, and so easily explained, such that two and a half hours later we are only continuing to be told what was obvious about her and the hero’s relationship to her from the beginning. Despite many brilliant set-pieces and narrative riffs by Nolan and his team, that particular screen-writing choice was a deal-breaker.
Larry Gross (born 1953) is an American screenwriter, producer, and occasionally a director. He won the 2004 Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival for We Don’t Live Here Anymore.