(Top photo: Olivier Assayas and Kristen Stewart on the set of 'Personal Shopper'. Photo: Carole Bethuel)
Olivier Assayas is responsible for one of the strangest, most divisive films of the year. Personal Shopper plays endlessly with genre, making it impossible to ease into – which you'll either love or hate, depending on your patience and passion for film.
In Assayas' movie, Kristen Stewart plays Maureen, a personal shopper working for German designer-slash-supermodel, Kyra. She sometimes tries on Kyra's clothes, which gets her in trouble, and stays in Kyra's apartment while she is away. What makes this project different from the French director's other films is that his previous flirtations with the supernatural are brought to the fore; Maureen is also a medium, attempting throughout the film to contact her dead twin Lewis, who died in the old Parisian house they both grew up in.
Ahead of VICE's Q&A screening with him last week, I spoke to Assayas about directing Kristen Stewart, watching teenagers conduct séances and making the sexual non-sexual.
VICE: The real world crosses over with the supernatural space of séances and ghosts in this film. How did you get drawn into the paranormal?
Olivier Assayas: We all build a relationship with the supernatural in our own way and in our own language. We live in cultures that have drifted away from religion, which gave some answers to questions, so now we're on our own and we try to construct something – even if it's in a negative way – against the sense that there's nothing there. I think there's something there. There is this grey zone inside us where you have some sort of communication between the conscious and the subconscious, and there are strange things happening in that zone.
Even as a child I was attracted to the notion of the supernatural. I grew up in the countryside and my father was a writer who read a lot, so I read lots of stuff that kids should not be reading. I remember reading books about psychic experiences, and it kind of terrified me. As a kid you like to be scared. I built my own inner-world where there are doors between invisible things. I suppose this film kind of echoes it. I suppose it's always been there in my films in one way or another, but here it's explicit.
Yeah, I remember you mention ghosts in Clouds of Sils Maria. What did you learn doing the spooky research for Personal Shopper?
What I learned is how present it is in the culture. I was surprised – I had no idea. Searching online for ghosts, spirits – you realise that millions of kids are obsessed with that and are filming séances and putting them on YouTube. In the screenplay I used stuff that I just picked from videos of teenagers having séances. I met people, like this woman who is the leading spiritualist in France, and had strange conversations with those people. They say: "Oh yes, we meet every Saturday afternoon and we have séances and some of us bring cookies and tea," and whatever. It's part of their lives.
Nearly all reviews have said the film believes in the reality of ghosts, but I thought it was more ambiguous than that.
I agree. I don't want to be too abstract or intellectual about it, but it has to do with the way you question or don't question the notion of perception. In the sense that, in a movie, you can show things that are not real. Like in real life, the way we process our environment is completely subjective. When I show a ghost, what I am showing is ultimately a disturbance within the perception of someone who is scared, and I'm trying to represent what she's feeling, what she's seeing – but it doesn't necessarily mean I represent it as real.
Kristen Stewart is phenomenal in this – the entire film is essentially a close-up of her face, so thank goodness she is.
What's exciting about working with Kristen is that she makes something out of anything. Kristen never goes through the motions of anything. Anything becomes important. You ask her to uncork a bottle or to open a curtain or put a coin in a slot machine, she will make it instantly cinematic. She will do something with the way she holds herself. She has such an extraordinary and unique knowledge of how acting connects with an audience and how it can generate tension. It's uncanny. We would be shooting a scene and I would see how long the shot was, and it'd be three minutes when I thought it was 30 seconds.
There's that fantastic long shot of her naked and dressing in her boss' expensive clothes while she's away. You don't really think of her character as a sexual being, and while the shot isn't voyeuristic at all it makes you question her identity. Does she see herself as a sexual person?
I think it's the start of her trying to connect with her own femininity. The film is really a coming of age story. She's coming to terms with herself. But that scene is really a perfect example of what I was saying in the sense that Kristen makes something of nothing. It's very delicate, in that I didn't want it to be voyeuristic and didn't want to push her into something she would be uncomfortable with. And I knew that the process of undressing and redressing is also very long, so basically when we started shooting I told her "Okay, this is the logic of the shot. But don't worry – we're not going to keep the whole thing; it's too long. So feel free if you're embarrassed to turn around." I didn't want it to have a sense that I was coercing her into making it sexy or showing more of her body. I didn't want to put a burden on her.
We start shooting it and I watch the whole process of how she turns it into some sort of choreography and basically took it as a challenge to make it interesting from start to finish. We did it, like, three times to get it exactly right, but it just became like music. I realised I was going to keep the whole thing – there was no way I could edit that.
It could be so uncomfortable watching an A-lister walk around naked, but it doesn't feel that way.
I've always been interested in the way Kristen can be both physical and not physical, sexual and non-sexual. In the two movies we've done together, I don't feel I'm filming Kristen like any kind of sex symbol or whatever. She's a real life person who is basically trying to come to terms with herself.
And she plays these very stripped back, normal, almost small characters.
That what I was looking for. Looking back on both movies we've made together, I realise that ultimately it's all about dealing with the real Kristen as opposed to the A-list star. Both times I have to throw the burden of celebrity on someone else. So the issue of celebrity is part of the film, but she's stripped of it.
How much did you want those two films – Personal Shopper and Clouds of Sils Maria – to work as a pair?
Well, there is certainly a connection. I didn't think of it when I was writing the script, I just realised it the minute it was locked that Kristen would play Maureen. All of a sudden there was this very obvious connection between the two films. I was kind of aware that Maureen would be some kind of continuation of Valentine [Stewart's character in Clouds of Sils Maria] – that they are in a certain way similar characters.
Have you thought of making a third film with her?
Oh yes. I'm not sure what yet, but I definitely will be working with her again. I just don't get tired of looking at her. What is exciting for me is that we have very similar ways of working. We are both very intuitive on the set. We just need a framework, and there is something about our dynamic on the set that kind of creates the film, so it's very exciting and I hope we can further it.
'Personal Shopper' is out in cinemas now.
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