Interview: Olivier Assayas on directing Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper

Olivier Assayas PIC: Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images
Olivier Assayas PIC: Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images
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When Kristen Stewart was looking to move on from the Twilight franchise, she sought out veteran French director Olivier Assayas. The pair made the acclaimed Clouds of Sils Maria in 2014 and their latest collaboration, Personal Shopper, is playing at Glasgow Film Festival this week. It feels like the start of a beautiful friendship, the director tells Alistair Harkness

Blockbuster success can haunt an actor when achieved early in a career. In the wake of Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio had to make three films with Martin Scorsese before people would accept what should have been self-evident: that he’s the best American actor of his generation. For Kristen Stewart, that re-evaluation is happening right now, thanks to her collaborations with veteran French auteur Olivier Assayas. After 2014’s Clouds of Sils Maria – for which Stewart became the first American actress to win a Ceasar Award (the French equivalent of the Oscars) – and now his new film Personal Shopper, she’s successfully exorcised the ghost of Twilight.

“I feel extremely lucky to be able to work with her at this point in her career,” confirms Assayas when we meet in London to discuss Personal Shopper, which, like the film industry set Clouds of Sils Maria, offers a sly meditation on the intersection of stardom with reality (albeit this time set against the backdrop of the fashion industry). “The roles have to do with who Kristen is. She’s this big movie star, but she’s also a very open, simple person: it’s a side of her I really wanted to see and help her get across, which I suppose is why I created these two characters for her.”

Though the films tell stand-alone stories, they’re related in the sense that both cast Stewart as assistants to wealthy, bubble-dwelling celebrities. Valentine in Clouds of Sils Maria and Maureen in Personal Shopper are extensions of one another, part of an invisible, very real network of put-upon PAs whose ability to micromanage the private and professional lives of the rich and famous help sustain the illusion that those lifestyles are otherworldly and desirable, accessible to the rest of us – if at all – only through these young, hyper-efficient gatekeepers.

In Personal Shopper, though, Assayas has ratcheted up the otherworldy aspect by making the film a horror movie of sorts. In addition to being a personal shopper for a spoiled, absentee fashion model, Stewart’s Maureen is also a medium who is obsessed with making contact with her dead brother and even has a side career as a paranormal investigator. If it sounds a little hokey on paper, the use of genre elements in an otherwise naturalistic film makes it thoroughly unsettling on screen.

“Horror allows me to express things that I could not express if I was not using those elements,” says Assayas, who has flirted with the genre before, most notably in Irma Vep, his 1996 drama about filmmaking. “To me, genre elements create some physical or emotional connection with the audience. When you’re watching Kristen in the first scene of the film walking through that haunted house, you’re with her: you physically feel what she’s feeling. It adds another dimension.”

At the same time, Assayas insists he wasn’t interested in making a “ride”.

“Horror movies are rides, ultimately. I don’t function like that. Genre elements are more like the doors to another world; they don’t have to contaminate the whole film.”

Indeed, the film’s most intense sequence doesn’t feature ghostly apparitions at all but an extended text conversation that’s effective precisely because of how mundane it is. “I think the conversations we have via text messages have a very interesting tension,” nods Assayas. “They have their own kind of suspense. The wording is very precise and often the shorter the better and the more brutal the better. To me the question was how can that be translated to film and used as a dramatic device that will be as powerful as the fascination we have with our phone screens?”

Assayas’s own fascination with the way film intersects with reality is a running theme in his much of his work, whether it’s the meta nature of the aforementioned Irma Vep, the future-tech musings of his cult curio Demonlover, the deconstruction of myth in his epic Carlos, or the autobiographical flourishes included in Something in the Air’s exploration of student radicalism. In many of his films, characters can be found watching, making or talking about movies. In Personal Shopper he brings this up to date by including a movie-within-a-movie in the form of playful YouTube clips of a film about Victor Hugo’s interest in the spirit world. It functions, he says, as a tongue-in-cheek commentary on Maureen’s quest, but also represents the way film clips now punctuate our daily lives, augmenting our conversations and even helping us interpretate the world around us. “It’s the new status of images. You make a film and all of a sudden a clip appears on YouTube and will have this weird new status. That’s not why I make movies, but I do make movies that try and represent the modern world and this has become an important means of communication.”

As a former film critic for Cahier du Cinema – the legendary French film magazine that counts Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut as former contributors – Assayas is part of a great tradition of French filmmakers who’ve spent a lot of time writing and thinking and theorising about cinema as a means of advancing their own eventual contributions to the artform. Though he says his previous career feels like lifetime ago, he continues to see the value in film theory, dismissing directors who claim to work on instinct as ignorant of artform. “That’s not a position I want to be in,” he says.

To this end he’s not sure if he’d enjoy working in Hollywood. In fact, he’s pretty sure he’d hate it. Prior to making Personal Shopper he was due shoot Idol’s Eye, a period heist movie starring Robert De Niro. It collapsed 24 hours before cameras were set to roll. “What I learned was how alien the world of Hollywood is to me. Filmmaking should be a joy, but the whole system is created to make your life miserable.”

Would he still like to make the film? “Of course. Any experience that expands my adventures as a filmmaker is beneficial.”

That sounds like a good philosophy: Idol’s Eye has since been resurrected. With Sylvester Stallone in the lead. n

*Personal Shopper screens at Glasgow Film Festival on 18 and 19 February and opens nationwide on 17 March.