If you have trouble figuring out what kind of film Olivier Assayas has made, the French writer-director might take it as a compliment.
Since the mid 1980s, the 62 year old, Assayas has made movies that turn narrative structures inside out. His Irma Vep (1996) is about a director (played by Truffaut veteran Jean-Pierre Léaud) struggling to remake Louis Feuillade’s silent classic Les Vampires, but the movie we’re watching seems to be as much a part of the story as the one supposedly being made.
His preoccupation with multilayered stories and roles-within-roles even applies to his Golden Globe and Cesar (French Oscar)-winning miniseries Carlos (2010) about the Venezuelan revolutionary Carlos the Jackal (born Ilich Ramírez Sánchez), which both played to the myth and deconstructed it. Similarly his last movie Clouds of Sils Maria featured Juliette Binoche as an actress reluctantly revivng a play where she’s now playing the older antagonist to the youthful role she had in its original production.
That movie won a Cesar for Kristen Stewart (yes, the one from The Twilight Saga), making Stewart the only American actress to have won the honor. Assayas has teamed up with her again in Pesonal Shopper, where she plays Maureen, a psychic who can commune with the dead but can’t make a Euro off of it, so she buys clothes for a European version of a Kardashian. Maureen has recently lost her twin brother and starts receiving texts and other signals that might be from him or from a more earthbound source.
Contacted by phone from Los Angeles, Assayas says that making an effective ghost story doesn’t necessarily involve a belief in the supernatural.
“With a lot of movies you’re supposed to forget you’re watching the actress and focus on the character.”
Personal Shopper is a ghost story, but I understand that you’re actually skeptical about them.
Well, yes, of course, but I think it depends on what reality you deal with when you use the word “ghosts.” I don’t be believe in ghosts in the literal sense. But I think we all have within us ghosts, and we all live with ghosts. I think there is more to the reality around us than the things we see. I don’t believe that the material world is the end of it.
I think that the world is more complex than that, and I think that we have dark areas within us, and I think we have also presences within us. I think we have conversations within us with individuals, loved ones, friends, parents, whatever.
So when we say ghosts, eventually it’s a projection of things that are going on within us. And I certainly do believe in that.
All of the films I’ve seen of yours—Carlos, Irma Vep, Personal Shopper and Clouds of Sils Maria—deal with the notion of celebrity because, for example, Carlos the Jackal uses his “legend” to wield power.
I had not really thought of it in those terms, but I suppose you’re correct. I think it has to do with the border between fake and reality. When I made Irma Vep, I’m using Maggie Cheung (a Wong Kar-Wai leading lady), someone who is both a real-life character going through a semi-documentary situation. But at the same time, she brings with her the characters she has played, the movies in which she has acted, by the very fact that she has had that career.
When I am making a movie like Clouds of Sils Maria, it’s a movie where you have a constant situation where you have double vision. You are watching the character of Maria but at the same time Juliette Binoche and Valentine, but you are watching Kristen Stewart, and the same thing with watching Jo-Ann, who is played by Chloë Grace Moretz.
With a lot of movies you’re supposed to forget you’re watching the actress and focus on the character. In Irma Vep or in Clouds of Sils Maria, you constantly have two layers.
Kristen Stewart’s character in Personal Shopper is like the sidekick in most stories, but here we find out that Sancho Panza is as interesting as or maybe even more so than Don Quixote.
Yes, in the sense that when I was writing Clouds of Sils Maria, ultimately I had a sense that I was using the dynamic that is very present in classic theater, which is like the master and the servant or the French 17th century comedies where those dynamics, where ultimately you never know who indeed is the central character. Is it the maid? Is it the mistress? I supposed I kind of tapped into those dynamics.
In Personal Shopper, you’re making some chilling statements about celebrity culture and materialism. With Clouds of Sils Maria, I could identify with Juliette Binoche’s character because everyone fears getting older. But with Maureen’s boss Kyra (Austrian-born actress Nora von Waldstätten), I was scared. I once heard an interview with the American model Cindy Crawford, who is a really sharp, thoughtful woman who makes her living that way, whereas Kyra creeps me out.
(Laughs) Yeah, I like the idea that she’s nothing more than surface. I didn’t want someone who’s an actress. I just wanted to have someone who’s a celebrity. She’s just a red carpet creature, and that’s it. I liked the idea that she represents what scares me about celebrity culture.
Ultimately, you’ve had those characters at any given period of time. It’s just that now they’re empowered by the media frenzy, by social media, whatever. Those characters become important or relevant or omnipresent in our lives because of their empowerment by modern means of communication. But in certain ways they are nothing new.
But I certainly like the idea of the character of Maureen working for someone she never really sees, who hardly exists. You know so many people who’ve worked for people they’ve hardly known and who they’ve never even seen. And now it’s even for a corporate entity, which is completely abstract. That sort of alienation is so much a part of the modern world.
“I just gave her space to be herself and to be funny, to be lively, and obviously to be likable.”
Even though we never see Maureen’s deceased brother Lewis, he’s a more vivid presence in the film than Kyra is.
That’s basically because Kyra is nothing else than the surface, whereas with Lewis, you’re trying to understand who he is, who he was. Through his friends, you are interested in creating your own vision of that missing figure in the film. But with Kyra, you’re familiar with her. You’ve seen too much of her.
Many people have almost credited you with “discovering” Kristen Stewart, but that’s grossly unfair because, she’d done great work in Into the Wild, Adventureland and The Runaways. What might be more interesting to ask is how has she influenced you?
I’ve always been a fan of Kristen. I’ve always loved what she does.
I have certainly not discovered her. I was basically the person who gave her the right moment, I think. I was very lucky. When I gave her the part in Clouds of Sils Maria, I had no idea of Kristen or how far she would go and the complexity she would give to that part. I really discovered her while we were shooting, or at least I discovered certain dimensions of her. But it’s really about giving her for the first time the kind of space that actresses have in European independent film. No one ever really gave her that space. I just gave her space to be herself and to be funny, to be lively, and obviously to be likable.
In Personal Shopper, she has a movie star’s appearance, but she also seems more earthbound and accessible than some actresses are.
Yes, because I could have done movies with Kristen dealing with herself as a movie star, but ultimately what I always found more interesting with Kristen was not the movie star dimensions but the fact that she’s a real, live, authentic, generous, caring person. I’ve always been interested in the idea of representing that side of her. So that’s I supposed that’s why in Clouds of Sils Maria I made her an assistant and made her look like being yourself. And it’s the same thing in Personal Shopper, I got rid of the star element by projecting the star element of someone else, and it allows me to represent her as a real, live flesh-and-blood person.
This movie was shot around the time of Paris terror attacks in 2015. How do you think that might have affected the content of the film?
We prepared the film one block away from the Bataclan Theatre. We shot the various exterior scenes one week before the attacks, meaning if we had had a different schedule, I hardly know how we would have been able to shoot. They would never have allowed it. I’m not sure if you can even shoot that stuff in Paris right now without much more coercive security arrangements.
When we had already moved to the Czech Republic. That’s where we shot a lot of the studio. We built a lot of our sets there.
It just fell on us one day. We had a 5AM call, which means I went to sleep very early before the attacks happened in Paris, and I got the news when I woke up. And I didn’t know how to handle it. I went on to the set. It was like dawn, and everybody was like horrified.
The decision for what to do was on my shoulders, and I had no idea. Should we stop shooting? Should we go on? I should say it quickly occurred to be the best idea was to go on. But it certainly could not be business as usual. Everybody knew someone or knew someone who knew someone or had a parent. And all the sudden everybody had a personal, physical connection to what was going on and also to the tension in Paris the next day. It was not just the attack. It was also about the aftermath of the attack and the hunting for the suspects. We had news that came in from Paris that sounded like the press you get from Beirut.
So, yes, it was there. It was there non-stop. We couldn’t get rid of it. It was there in the background. It was something that had this kind of tension on the film.