Reflections of the Actress

How director Olivier Assayas blurs the line between actor and character with Kristen Stewart, Maggie Cheung, and Juliet Binoche.
Elyssa Jakim

Olivier Assayas and Kristen Stewart. Courtesy of IFC Films.

This week sees the release of Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, starring Kristen Stewart. Assayas’s prior film, The Clouds of Sils Maria, also featured Stewart. This repetition of casting is nothing new for Assayas. Maggie Cheung has been in several of his films, as has Juliet Binoche (who stars opposite Stewart in The Clouds of Sils Maria). Assayas began his career as a writer for Cahiers du cinéma and his films are clearly reflections on the cinema as much as about any other subject. The repetition of a major star is part of this reflection. Viewing Assayas’s works featuring Maggie Cheung, Juliet Binoche, and Kristen Stewart provides a complex exploration of actress and character.

In three films that star these actresses—Irma Vep (1996), The Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), and Personal Shopper (2016)—supposed truth readily blends into fiction. Script and spontaneity collide. Further collisions of cultures, languages, statuses, cinematic influences, and actors/characters create a kind of kaleidoscopic viewing experience. Assayas has called Irma Vep a sort of game that the audience is a part of. Indeed, it seems all three of these films are games in which we never quite know who is the actor and who the character, for it is in fact the very notion of self-definition that Assayas investigates.

In Irma Vep, Maggie Cheung plays herself on a movie shoot. That movie is a remake of Louis Feuillade’s serial, silent film Les vampires (1915-16), a celebrated film starring the legendary Musidora as Irma Vep. Already, there are several layers to unravel, all about status and stardom. The new film’s temperamental director, René Vidal (played by the legendary Jean-Pierre Léaud), is hesitant to make the film, for he feels that no one can do justice to Musidora’s performance. He thus decides to take a different direction, casting a Chinese actress, because she feels distinctive to him. With her acrobatic, dancer-like nature, Maggie has what he calls “the grace.” The film follows Maggie’s experience as René attempts to shoot the film, though his emotional breakdown keeps him from finishing it. We are left with the suggestion that René is to be replaced by another French movie director, and that Maggie will be replaced by a French actress. Replications abound.

Immediately featuring a character with the same name as the actress who plays her toys with the viewer’s expectations of person and persona, making us question what is truth, what is fiction, and who is who. Assayas tells us in an interview with Glenn Kenny that Cheung did blend her personal experience into her role. Assayas explains: 

She's this kind of fish out of water; she's in a completely different environment, and she doesn't speak the language and people ask her weird questions and she's trying to figure out what's going on.  Which is pretty much what was happening with Maggie on the set. But I mean she herself used that in her work.  

Maggie’s “fish out of water” status creates interesting ripples throughout the film. Some characters such as Vidal and a costumer with a crush on Maggie are enchanted by her grace. Others fail to see it. Assayas’s choice of the real Maggie Cheung both celebrates the Hong Kong action films she was known for and also comments on a phenomenon of French films that appropriated this genre. In that same interview with Kenny, Assayas tells us, “at that time mainstream commercial French film making was beginning to use whatever they saw in Hong Kong film making as the basis for some kind of French genre film making . . . I [felt] that there were these guys who . . . only loved the sex and violence thing and [did not] understand the complexities of wherever that was coming from.” Irma Vep includes a young journalist character with a love of violent films who interviews Cheung about the state of cinema and lends a comedic voice to this perspective. He claims that the French intellectual film has “ruined the cinema,” and hardly allows Maggie to speak—oblivious to her grace.  Though ultimately fired from the Les vampires project, the misunderstood, misplaced Maggie leaves to meet with Ridley Scott in New York. She will be fine. “But how will the French cinema fare?” Assayas questions.

The second film, Clouds of Sils Maria, continues to tease the tension between person and persona and high versus low status. Binoche plays a later-in-career actress, Maria Enders, appearing in a revival of a play that secured her fame twenty years earlier. The play is about two women caught in games of love and deception. While Maria originated the role of the younger woman, she now plays the older woman: insecure, worried about aging, putting too much of her heart on the line. Here Assayas creates layers of doubling, for the relationship within the play is mirrored by Maria’s relationship with her personal assistant, Valentine, played by Stewart. The two spend the majority of the movie in the otherworldly mountains of Sils Maria, Switzerland, rehearsing and rehashing ideas about cinema, acting, actresses, and career while a strange sexual tension brews beneath the surface, just as it does in the play.

Binoche’s character, like Cheung’s, is really a double of Binoche herself. Assayas has said he wrote the film to make Binoche a character, even though unlike Maggie he gave her a disguised name. And then there is a doppelganger of Kristen Stewart: the younger actress in the revival, Jo-Anne Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz). Like Stewart the actress, Jo-Anne has a notorious relationship with the paparazzi. She has cheated on her boyfriend in public, which Stewart famously did to Robert Pattinson. Perhaps one of the most thrilling moments in the film is Valetine’s defense of Jo-Anne, because we feel that is speaking about her own acting abilities. “I love her, she’s not completely antiseptic like the rest of Hollywood. She’s brave enough to be herself . . . in fact, I think she’s probably my favorite actress,” Valentine tells Maria. We can easily imagine Stewart the actress speaking from her own experience and defending her own career. Here Assayas addresses what we could be thinking when we see one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood in an international art film, shifting the gears of her acting career. Lines blur.  

The newly minted Personal Shopper is not explicitly about the cinema or the theatre—it contains no play within a play. But its conversions and conversations vis-à-vis the other two films creates a rich dialogue with what came before, deepening the questions of the two prior films. The film opens and Kristen Stewart’s car pulls up to an abandoned home somewhere outside of Paris. Immediately, like Maggie, she appears a stranger in a strange land. Throughout the film, Maureen grapples with being in Paris: it is not where she wants to be, but it is where she feels she must be, because it is where her recently deceased brother Lewis lived. Both siblings are psychic mediums. They are twins with a rare heart condition that took Lewis’s life. They had made a pact that whoever died first would send a message to the other from the beyond. Maureen tells the other characters in the film that she is waiting for this message. While she waits, she has taken a job as a personal shopper for Kira, a celebrity fashionista, who is too high profile and too busy to go to the grand stores on her own. Maureen gets into a texting relationship with a stranger who pushes her to do “forbidden” things, namely trying on Kira’s clothes. Lonely and waiting for that message from the beyond, Maureen accepts the messages of someone who turns out to be a dangerous man: near the end of the film Maureen discovers Kira has been murdered by Kira’s ex-lover, the texter.

Although Personal Shopper has a story all its own, there are several subtle ways in which its subject matter is still the cinema. When Maureen takes off her drab sweater to don Kira’s “forbidden” designer clothes, she is really trying on Kira’s character, status, and role. A transformation occurs, which of course is the very stuff of performance. Strangely, there are also thematic and visual repetitions of Irma Vep in this film: tales of stealing jewels, donning bondage costumes. And seen directly after Clouds of Sils Maria, Stewart’s role is an interesting repetition from her last: personal assistant easily correlates to personal shopper.  As it unravels, Personal Shopper becomes an eerie ghost story; supernatural events occur. By creating ghost images (afterimages) of events and preserving its subjects in time, the filmic medium is the ghost medium. And a psychic medium is a type of actor, because the actor allows a different identity to use the vessel of her body in order to communicate the ideas of others.

Part of what lures us into the cinema is that we always want to get to know the person under the role, because acting on film, which picks up every minute breath or tick or pimple, is only good when it appears real. Kristen Stewart’s acting reputation is on the rise. She was the first American actress to win the César Award (for her performance in The Clouds of Sils Maria in fact) and in the past few years, she has garnered prestige in the films of Woody Allen, Ang Lee, Drake Doremus, and Kelly Reichardt. Taking in these post-Twilight film performances, I find myself partially watching them in order to gauge whether or not Stewart is really worthy of this attention. I cannot say that my viewing has convinced me of her acting prowess, nor does it disappoint. Rather, I find myself distracted by the fact that I am watching Kristen Stewart. I muse about what she must be like as a person, and I continually wonder whether she is a good actress. But never for a moment, when I watch Personal Shopper, do forget that I am watching Kristen Stewart putting on a character. Is this what Assayas wants us to question? Does she have the grace? It seems Assayas would have us answer in the affirmative.

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Olivier AssayasKristen StewartMaggie CheungJuliet Binoche
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