Like many of Olivier Assayas’s films, Personal Shopper is at war with itself, wrestling with its self-consciousness in the pursuit of a diaphanous, highly textural poetry. The film is a veritable catalogue of Assayas’s fetishes, including rarefied realms, global commerce, trains, beautiful women, and fleeting, mysterious allusions to genre conventions that are pointedly leeched of catharsis. Speaking with Assayas over the phone yesterday, I found him to be similarly self-conscious and passionate, given to speaking of intuition in ironically ritualistic terms. One senses that Assayas’s own history as a critic for the legendary Cahiers du Cinéma continues to inform him as a writer and director, as he loves to digest his own work but tries to stave the act of analysis off until a film is in the can and all possibilities for improvisation and spontaneity have been exhausted. Below, we discuss the riddles of achieving immediacy in the highly choreographed and collaborative art of cinema, the parallels existing between Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper, and the extraordinary visceral instincts of actor Kristen Stewart, who’s ideally suited for Assayas’s cinema of oxymoronically controlled chaos.
Personal Shopper strikes me as a refinement of the techniques, symbols, and obsessions that you’ve brought with you from film to film. Did you consciously approach this project in such a way?
I don’t function consciously. I like discussing my films once they’re done, but I think when I’m making them, or imagining them, I kind of let my thoughts ramble. I’m very instinctive, especially in terms of my writing. I become so fed up with classic film narrative. I think there’s a million ways to tell stories, and I’m experimenting, trying to connect with my own subconscious, I suppose, which is a lot of what genre filmmaking is about. It’s a kind of filmmaking that’s always been important for me.
Personal Shopper has little “pockets” of genre filmmaking, toying with various classic thriller situations, before ultimately going in other directions.
Yeah. To me, genre is a syntax. I’m not interested in being locked in the framework of a genre, but I know that genre filmmaking connects physically with the audience. It generates anxiety, fear, tension, much better than any other syntax in cinema. In a movie like Personal Shopper, where I’m trying to deal with the anxieties of someone who’s reconstructing herself after a devastating loss, I thought I needed that color, that texture, but I didn’t want to be held hostage to genre.
There’s an irony to many good films about the supernatural: the heightened metaphorical elements actually ground the grief elements.
Watching your new film, I thought of The Innocents, especially during that opening scene as Kristen Stewart’s character is wandering that creepy house.
What I was interested in when I was shooting that scene was the idea that the audience is here in this strange house and they have no idea where they are or what part of the world they’re in, they don’t know what she’s doing there, they don’t know a thing about her, and it goes on and on and on. Because she’s such a blank page, you can project whatever you want on her, and she’s on a quest for something that you don’t entirely grasp. I was compelled by this way of walking into the film and somehow getting acquainted with the character.
Playing with genre elements, but not devoting yourself entirely to them, inspires in the audience a degree of uncertainty that may parallel the uncertainty of your characters. The audience is wondering what kind of film they’ve walked into.
You mentioned the spontaneity of your writing process, is your filmmaking similarly intuitive? Do you pre-plan shots, for instance?
I design the shots in the morning before shooting. I need to have all the elements in my hand. I need to know the location, the actors, and what I’ve done the previous day. I need to know what the surrounding scenes may look like. I very consciously do my homework the morning before going to the set, but I will change my plans anyway. I will adapt to the instincts of the actors and to the ideas that grow out of my initial ideas. I really believe in the type of filmmaking that’s open to inspiration. Nothing has to be solid or fixed until the camera’s rolling, and we’ll continue to fix and emphasize things from one take to another.
Do you rehearse with the cast?
I don’t rehearse at all. The process is that I don’t rehearse. I give the actors a very basic notion of what we’re going to do, more or less where the shot begins and where it ends. In the middle, I give the actors as much space as I can. Sometimes it’s very difficult to function like that. It’s very challenging, not so much for the actor, but mostly for the technical crew. For the boom operator, and so on, because they have no reference point for where the camera or actors will be, so they have to improvise. But I don’t like the idea of blocking things. The whole idea of blocking is completely alien to my way of functioning, so we never have knots on the floor, or positions for the actor, or anything of the sort. It’s forbidden on my set.
That liveliness reads on screen. A lot of horror films are locked down, and you know where the focal elements are going to be placed on the screen. When Kristen walks into this house in Personal Shopper, those pockets of darkness have a vivid, wild texture and work their way into your imagination. Similarly, when I think of your prior film, Clouds of Sils Maria, I recall the heightened present-tense quality of those train scenes. The train scenes in
For some reason I like trains [Laughs]. In both cases, the scenes were shot in, like, a garage. The train isn’t actually moving. If you’re on an actual moving train, you’re dependent on too many things, and you can’t do complicated shots or scenes, especially long scenes. So we adapt, recreating the exterior, and so forth. We have fun with that.
Your films suggest a sort of found expressionism, if that makes any sense.
Yes, yes it totally does. Especially with a movie like Personal Shopper, because it has more sets, more built sets, than any of my other films. And more special effects. And the film’s subconscious dimension connects with some form of expressionism. For me the greatest filmmaker is Fritz Lang.
He’s one of my favorites too. What’s your favorite Lang film?
I think it must be the Spies. I’m mad about Lang’s silent films. I’ve watched them over and over again.
It’s probably an unfair question anyway. He has like 30 masterpieces. It’s hard to sort out favorites.
Absolutely. Even when I first started making films, he was the one filmmaker I would watch just to see how it’s done. I have a very basic relationship to film. I just like watching them. I enjoy story. But with Lang, I watch his films to see how they work.
In terms of the supernatural elements of Personal Shopper, was there any particular reason why you wanted to go in a more overtly fantastic realm, compared to your past work?
Well, no, it’s something that’s been in my movies. Always, in one way or another. I think it’s very present in movies like Irma Vep and even in something like Clouds of Sils Maria. In the case of Personal Shopper, I think it was about making one extra step. I’ve wanted to make that extra step for a long time, but I suppose that I was intimidated or scared. And I suspect that this leap has to do with meeting Kristen. Working with Kristen has given me confidence to take this kind of risk and try things that I haven’t tried before. I’m encouraging her to do stuff that she’s never done and to show a side of her that people weren’t completely aware of. But I think she also helps me do things that I wouldn’t have done without her. What I mean when I say that is that I can try to deal with the invisible, with very abstract emotions, because I know she will always bring them back to real life. She’s so grounded. She’s so authentic in the way that she expresses her emotions that she always brings the film something that the audience can share, something universal.
She has such a visceral quality as an actor. I think of her drinking coffee in Personal Shopper. Her sipping from a coffee cup is more dramatic than many actors’ monologues.
Yeah, yes, it’s really the tiny things that amaze me. I remember how struck I was one day when we were shooting Clouds of Sils Maria, she had to close a curtain, and the way she positioned her body to close that curtain. I was just amazed. Something so basic and mundane, and you give it to Kristen and she transforms it into something cinematic. I thought it was magic. I could mention a lot of details that completely come from her in both films.
Was Personal Shopper written around Kristen, or conceived with her?
It was inspired by her. I was writing this story about a young American girl, and my reference in terms of young American girls was Kristen in terms that we just worked on Clouds of Sils Maria. I wasn’t sure she would do it, so I didn’t want to lock myself into that one option. But she certainly inspired me to write that story, and she was obviously the first person I gave it to. And she read it and wanted to do it, and all of a sudden this movie became like an extension of Clouds of Sils Maria, which it would not have been if it had been another actress. But from the minute we went with Kristen it’s like everything made sense, she channeled all the energy from one film to the other.
And you have in Personal Shopper the classic idea of the voyeur.
This is something that’s kind of defined by Kristen. There are scenes that end up being sexy, that are ultimately much more daring than what I’ve written. I hate the idea of asking actresses to do things that they feel uncomfortable with. I’m not shy, but I’m always very open to avoiding anything that’s too obvious in terms of sexiness. I always leave the door open for actors to tell me, “Okay, so this is the limit, I won’t go much further than that.” I’m okay with that. In the case of this film and Kristen, she established, instantly, that she was willing to go all the way. She would just do it [disrobe] as simply and obviously as any other scene. But, yes, the way she extended those scenes, generates something voyeuristic in terms of how the audience relates to them. And, honestly, there are scenes that I toned down [in the editing room].
The scene where Kristen’s character tries on her client’s dress is a startling moment.
It skirts convention. Kristen had to undress and dress again. And when I was trying to think how to shoot that scene, the only thing I could tell Kristen is “Well, you know we’re going to shoot the whole thing, but I will edit, so don’t worry, take your time. We’re obviously not going to keep the whole process [on screen].” And then we started shooting, and the way she was undressing, and re-dressing, the way she was using every single element that had any kind of potential in that scene was amazing—and I’m, like, “Oh my God, I’m not going to edit this, this is going to be a very long shot.” It works based on how Kristen invented some sort of choreography for it.
It’s an astonishing moment because we’re allowed to see this character shed some of her self-consciousness, entering a new realm. This character is racked with grief over her brother, and you get this glimpse of another version of her.
Yes, yes, yes. The thing is that she’s trying to reconnect with herself. She’s lost, it’s not like she’s just grieving. She lost her twin brother, she lost like one half of her, and she’s like walking on one leg, and she wants to become one whole person again. And she wants to be someone else, obviously she wants to be herself, and she knows she’s not there yet. And so she’s questioning everything about her life, including her own gender, I suppose. And I think that part of the film is about her realizing that there’s something also about her own femininity that she has to come to terms with. In that sense, it’s important that she has lost a brother. She’s constantly questioning her gender in a certain way. When she communicates through text messages, it’s mysterious, and the issue is always “Is she talking to a boy or a girl?” It’s the one thing she’s constantly asking and concerned with.