The Process of Dreaming: Oliver Assayas Discusses "Personal Shopper"

An interview with the French filmmaker about ghosts, working with Kristen Stewart, genre filmmaking and taking risks.
Daniel Kasman

The cinema, an art that has the capacity to integrate all other arts into it, is the medium of the mash-up. Films are highly permeable, where the unexpected happens, shows up or leaks in: situations and conditions, actors and locations all combine into something frozen in images animated into an untangleable hybrid. French director Olivier Assayas is no stranger to unusual combinations, but his new film Personal Shopper with remarkable abruptness tries to integrate two seemingly unrelated stories, making for an unexpected, beguiling, often silly, but always risky cinematic experience.

Both stories are of a lonely, independent young woman. The first is an anxious but self-assured medium who is haunted by the absence of afterworld signs of her dead twin brother. We meet her in her brother’s dark, emptied mansion, seeking some manifestation of his presence. She finds something there, a floating opaque wisp, thumps in the night, a cross scratched on the wall, and reports back to the house’s new owners that something is there—but she’s unsure if it’s her brother. The second young woman is a personal shopper of luxury clothing for a celebrity. She goes from store to store, picking out and later returning boutique couture outfits and accessories, secretly trying on the clothing of this other person (and this other world) before dropping them off at her boss’s empty flat—for she almost never sees her the famous woman.

This may sound like two different women, two different stories, but, in fact, Kristen Stewart, who collaborated so beautifully with the director in 2014’s Clouds of Sils Maria, plays both the medium and the shopper as one person: Maureen. The result is that Assayas and Stewart appear to lay two distinct movies on top of one another, the first a film like the director’s moviemaking drama Irma Vep, of an isolated and somewhat distraught woman from another country living someone else’s life through an art—in that film, the cinema, in this case, fashion. The second is a genre film, a ghost movie that uses shockingly direct special effects for classic horror movie tropes—ectoplasm, unexplained noises, floating objects—and more bizarre updates, including an elaborate sequence of someone, perhaps the spirit of the dead twin, teasing the young woman through a barrage of stalker-like text messages.

This frankly unresolved combination of forms and themes most resembles the director’s last attempt at a pure genre film, 2007’s Boarding Gate, which fleshed out a pointedly pulpy, B-movie story with byzantine character relationships and prickly psychology. Despite that film’s wonderful raw edges, it was too elaborated upon to be the kind of knife-sharp, nimble thriller it wanted to be. Or did it? This director’s intersections of intelligent art-house dramatics and cinephile impulses have almost always made for impure movies that try a lot of things, and frankly I tend to most admire most the ones that take those risks, whether it’s Irma Vepdemonlover or Boarding Gate.

Both sides of Personal Shopper work on their own terms, though the terms of the ghost story involve Assayas’ decision to so concretely visualize the otherworldly that it actually overwhelms the film’s ghost story. A movie-inside-the-movie about Victor Hugo's paranormal experiences is tongue-in-cheek enough to suggest Personal Shopper knows that its bumps in the night are silly, but the young woman's sorrow and fear is serious and touching, so later ghostly encounters, including the SMS haunting, are a challenge to not find too ridiculous. (More elegant is a series of camera movements that follow nothing at all, and we see both an elevator and automatic doors open for this absence presence.) That the film is held together during such scenes is due almost entirely to Kristen Stewart. Her remarkable performance, at once forcefully headstrong and unexpectedly fragile, goes very far indeed to blend the shopper and the medium as one person, the two stories as inverted versions of each other: possessions and clothing, images and communication. With only a handful of supporting cast, Personal Shopper truly dedicates its weird, uncanny and unusual self to this very unsure, unsettled but resilient young woman. Shot on 35 mm film in slate grays and muted bruise tones to cast a mourning darkness on her grief (...and boutique shopping), this film through and through attempts something quite brave, and I’m still trying to figure out just what that attempt is, precisely, before I can even begin to consider its success.

NOTEBOOK: Do you believe in ghosts?

OLIVIER ASSAYAS: Do I believe in ghosts? Yes, I do. Of course I do! We all do. It's just a matter of not being fooled by the world, you know? I don't believe in actual, you know, things, creatures or whatever, substances that float around us. But I think we all live with our ghosts. It's something we can all relate to, because "ghost" means our relationship to our memories, our relationship to our own subconscious. It means the belief that there's more to it in the world or in life than just the [knocks on table] material world. We all share that, you know?

NOTEBOOK: I find this film very risky, and it's one of the things I admire about it. Part of what I see as its risk is that it really feels like two movies jammed together. You have a film that could easily have been a stand alone film about a young woman in Paris who is a personal shopper and has an identity crisis—a bit like Clouds of Sils Maria—and blends identities. That could have been a whole movie, ninety minutes. And then you could have a whole other movie about a psychic who is traumatized by the death of her brother and is increasingly haunted by the loss through her story. Did you always conceive of this film as a whole?

ASSAYAS: First: I believe in collage. I really do. Obviously, I've always been convinced that not taking risks in filmmaking is extremely boring. You know? Movies are exciting because they are dangerous, in a certain way. They are exciting if you are trying new things, things that have not been done before. Which means also confronting things that were never meant to be together, you know? Like using a Chinese movie star in an indie French film. It's something that's really been part of my work, always.

I would have asked the question the other way around, in the sense that it's more the story of a psychic who lives in a world which involved personal shopping. To me the real story is obviously about someone...not so much trying to reconnect with her lost brother, it's more about someone who lost a half of herself. And who realizes gradually that what she has lost is not exactly her brother but that half of herself she has to gain back. She gets involved in this murder subplot, in a certain way, but this become a catalyst. The same way that, in a movie that in many ways has been an inspiration, Blow Up, by Antonioni, where you also have this guy who is in the fashion industry and who discovers something about himself by being involved unwillingly in a crime story. To me, the narrative comes to life by confrontation of the two elements. I don't think I would have made a movie about a personal shopper's day to day life in Paris.

NOTEBOOK: It's interesting that you describe your film as a collage, because I feel like there is often an impulse in your work towards desiring to make pure genre films: Boarding Gate, Carlos, demonlover, and Personal Shopper. But it's like the film world can't help itself but pull more things in and complicate.

ASSAYAS: Yes, because I'm just so jealous of the physical relationship that genre filmmaking has with its audience. I think it's so important. I think it's as important to connect with the physicality of the viewer as to connect with his emotions or his mind. Eventually, it's possibly more important. I'm fascinated in many ways by genre, even if [laughs] I'm the opposite of a genre filmmaker—but again as a viewer I love genre, and as a filmmaker I know there is something really exciting within genre that somehow can add a level to whatever I'm trying to do.

NOTEBOOK: What do you mean by the "physical" response?

ASSAYAS: You react with your body to violence, to fear, to anxieties. It's something that echoes within your whole body.

NOTEBOOK: Certainly your film gives those pleasures. For me, there are two scenes during which I feel a "yes and no" version of what you're talking about. One is the marvelous tracking shots through the hotel following a spirit you cannot see, opening the doors. And the other is the sort of mirror version of that shot, following Ingo out of the hotel as he's being attacked by armed thugs. There, you keep the camera far away and right as the action starts happening [claps] you fade to black. It's almost a complete denial of the pleasure of this "action scene." How do you decide when and how to engage this physical response?

ASSAYAS: I think that what you're describing and what we're discussing is how movies are in touch with the expectation of the audience. In which they play into the expectation or they deceive them. I think you have to play on both levels. Part of making a film, part of making a film exciting for an audience, involves playing those games. It involves showing when they don't expect you to show, and hiding when they expect you to show. It creates some kind of instability that somehow keeps the audience awake. To me, a lot of movies leave the audience in some kind of "off" vision. You're just there and sit back. But I like movies that involve some kind of interaction.

NOTEBOOK: Speaking of showing or not showing, I was surprised how much of the supernatural you decided to reveal in Personal Shopper. An intense amount, in fact. Were you always imagining such visible hauntings?

ASSAYAS: No, I was kind of dragged into it, I think [laughs]. I had no idea. When I was writing, obviously the scene where the ghost actually appears is present; it's there. But I had no idea how much of it I would show; I had no idea how long it would be; I don't know how much would be actually that clear. And gradually I got interested. I got interested in the issue through the medium of spiritualist photography. In the late 19th century, the psychic mediums used photography to represent whatever they thought they saw. It looks kind of naive but also kind of eerie, when you look at those images. I thought that, yeah, well, maybe if I use that texture, I'll be at least in touch with something that is our own subconscious view of what ghosts look like. I realized gradually that this was part of the story.

NOTEBOOK: Let's talk about Kristen Stewart, who was so amazing in Clouds of Sils Maria. Was Personal Shopper written specifically for her?

ASSAYAS: I'm not sure I was completely aware of it, but yes [laughs]. Looking back on it, totally. I think I would not have written this character if I had not been influenced by working with Kristen. Maureen is, in some kind of subterranean way, a continuation of her character in Sils Maria. But when I was writing I denied it. Or I was in denial! But then I started discussing it with her and the second I started discussing it with her I realized it had been her all the way.

NOTEBOOK: I love the profound loneliness of Maureen. Thinking back through the film, I realized just how few characters there are besides her. It's very much a character piece: her alone in a city.

ASSAYAS: Loneliness is pretty much what the film is about, in many ways.

NOTEBOOK: It's interesting you bring up the 19th century spirituality because I feel like the two sides of the film, the personal shopping side and the psychic-ghost side are the hyper-modern and early modernity. In this light, I wanted to ask you about the audacious texting sequence between Maureen and another entity. It's a marvelously conceptual sequence that is at once creepy and a bit ridiculous in such a pleasurable way, using that technology to chart through space.

ASSAYAS: It's become such a part of our lives, you know? It's fascinating as a medium, because when you text the words are so charged. You are very careful with your wording, with your punctuation, with your timing of what you have to say. It's a very strong means of communication. To me, the question mark was that it was exciting in some kind of experimental way to see if this could translate on the screen. If what we feel when we're texting or "sexting"—if it translates. Ultimately, I think it does. It was incredibly complicated to get it right. Once you get into it—

NOTEBOOK: —it's pure logistics.

ASSAYAS: It's pure logistics. It's all timing nuances, the timing how long it takes to answer, how long it takes for a message to come back. And, of course, I like the idea of the two parallel narratives: to have on one side the very documentary reconstruction of the London trip; and on the completely invisible level this conversation with "something," someone that's not there. I like the idea of communicating with something that's invisible, that's mysterious, that's not completely elucidated, you know? We never know who actually, where that person is...

Which ultimately connects, somehow, with the spiritualism, in the sense that the birth of spiritualism, the origins, in the mid-19th century has to do with all the incredible inventions that were happening at the same time. And which gave a sense of making possible things that had always seemed part of the magical world. To see something that's far; to hear someone who's not there. It gave some kind of legitimacy to the whole idea of communicating with ghosts. The spiritualism is very close to the technical avant-garde movement of the time.

NOTEBOOK: Spiritualism was tied to the advent of photography and capturing a trace of something you didn't think was there.

ASSAYAS: All of a sudden all those incredible doors were being opened.

NOTEBOOK: Personal Shopper was shot on 35 mm film. How much do you see a quality of photochemical film being to capture something in front of the camera?

ASSAYAS: Possibly. To me, it's never been an option to shoot it digitally. Yeah...I had not thought about it from that angle, but I am convinced you are right. I think it has to do with the photochemical. There is something that's more physical or mysterious on 35 mm. I'm in love with the medium, you know, with the textures, but I think also for that reason you mention, it could well be for that reason.

NOTEBOOK: Can you talk a bit about the look of the film? I loved the color palette, it's incredibly distinctive, almost a bruised palette, deep, macerated purples—purple as the sun is setting.

ASSAYAS: I'm very pragmatic in terms of the look of a film. It kind of happened. I had no preconceived idea. And I hate even having these conversations with the cameraman, because I think that it limits the palette. I discover the texture of the film as I make it. The same way as when I write, I have no idea how I will shoot that stuff. I remember when I was writing Clouds of Sils Maria, I was writing those long dialog scenes and I kind of freaked out—how am I going to get away with this stuff? I'm pretty open to the way things come to you on the set. I start shooting the first day, the second day, and gradually I kind of understand what's the style of the film. I start from there and it grows. You have to be extremely respectful of the inner-logic of movies. They kind of happen to you: you put them into motion, but they also bring things back on their own. In this film, the only way I can answer your question about the color palette is that we spent a lot of time getting this right. I'm not sure why or how; there's no rationale to it. But it was pretty complicated to get the look of this film right.

NOTEBOOK: You said this film is very much about loneliness. I think back to Maggie Cheung being in your film Irma Vep and how much that movie was about the isolation she as actress felt on a foreign film set. Was that repeated with this American, Kristen Stewart, among this French crew?

ASSAYAS: It's a very different world. One is a comedy, the other is...not so much [laughs]. It's true I've been attracted to this...theme, of the loneliness of a foreign woman in Paris. I've done that in three movies. But it's not so much being foreign, it's characters who are cut off from their roots, who are like blank pages. They react more strongly to an environment, they gradually decipher it. Characters who are involved in a world they don't completely understand, and they grow to understand it through the film. Part of the narrative is expanding their understanding, trying to find their own balance in a hostile world. [laughs] Ultimately, I think that's something anybody can relate to, in a strange way.

NOTEBOOK: I hate to be the kind of person to ask for clarity in any film, but I'm really curious about Personal Shopper's epilogue. The film could have ended, potentially, with the apparition in the house at the end. And the length you go with this epilogue, it's a bit like the trip to London: it's not over after one or two scenes, you really want to build the process of Maureen traveling to Oman at the film's end.

ASSAYAS: I think I wanted [laughing] some kind of happy ending! I would not have been happy to leave it with her missing the apparition of her brother. Because all of a sudden you don't expect it any more, it's not going to happen—and still it happens, but she's not seeing it, because she's lost faith. I wanted her to rebuild some kind of faith, so that somehow she can reconnect not so much with her brother, as with herself. I like the idea that we think she missed the one opportunity she had, and ultimately faith gives her this new opportunity.

NOTEBOOK: And the impulse in that excursion to Oman, as well as the one to London, to follow these paths with almost a documentary process...

ASSAYAS: It's the conflict. I wanted the trip, it gave me the opportunity to do something that you can go through being in some kind of "off" position, right? You go through the motions, the cross the border, you show your passport, you go though the metal detector, you sit on the train. Something you can do completely mechanically that's completely like sleepwalking, the same way we sleepwalk when we travel, and at the same time being involved in something that's really intense in terms of your imagination, your fantasies. They interact, in a way, that to me was exciting, was exciting to shoot, was exciting to conceive—but was horribly complicated to find the right balance.

NOTEBOOK: In Clouds of Sils Maria, the story is about actors, and in Personal Shopper we see a shift from a film about artistic process to one that is also about identity, very much, and desires for identity—but moved into a commercial, consumer sphere. This really changes the tone of that conflict in the film. In Sils Maria, it's an artistic conflict of identity, and here that element is stripped out.

ASSAYAS: Yes. I think that once I finish a film, I have the sense that I went as far as I could in that direction, so I have to try something else. But I'm extremely dependent on my mood, and in the sense Sils Maria is a movie that I built layer after layer. It took me a while not so much to write it as but to kind of finalize the concept, make sense of what I wanted to say, and it came to me little by little, by layers, and at different stages. Whereas Personal Shopper, I really started from a blank page. It's a movie that I didn't want to go back to some notes I had taken on this and that, years ago.

The film happened when I was supposed to shoot a film in the U.S. which was a genre movie, burglary, and the film was shutdown something like 24-hours before shooting, which is horrible. I had spent months working, researching, preparing, etc., and I went back to Paris and said, "okay, what's the next step? Maybe it's the opportunity to start from scratch." What would happen if is instead of relying on something that matured, what would happen if I would just write something where I would just follow my instincts? The process of writing Personal Shopper has been a little bit like the process of dreaming. It has a logic that is more the logic of dreams, which is something I've always been looking for in movies. I like the idea of movies happening within a very physical and material world, but also have some kind of subconscious logic, some kind of mysterious logic. This was the opportunity to go back to something like that.

NOTEBOOK: "Go back" in the sense that you've worked like this before?

ASSAYAS: I feel I've done that in a couple of my earlier films.

NOTEBOOK: Was it refreshing to put all that aside and work more freely?

ASSAYAS: It's both refreshing and disturbing. Because it's very intimate, you know, we talk of it lightly because it's part of the process of creation, so we can put very simple words on it. But ultimately being in touch with your own subconscious, things come out that can be weird, that you don't expect, that can eventually scare you. You were asking if I believed in ghosts, and I want to say again yes I do, but maybe I'm also scared of them. Being so close to something that's mysterious, that haunts you—if you're not a genre filmmaker. I'm not in the business of making movies that just thrill the audience. If I'm dealing with ghosts it comes from a place where I have to be scared of them.

NOTEBOOK: The film, as I said earlier, feels very risky, and I think part of that risk is vulnerability. It's a very vulnerable film.

ASSAYAS: Yes. That's basically what I was trying to say. But you have to put yourself in that position.

NOTEBOOK: I must ask: Is there any chance for this American burglary film to be reborn?

ASSAYAS: We're trying. We got the rights back. We never really lost them, but the problem was that we had a crazy financier who spent a lot of money and then pulled the plug for reasons unknown. He basically blocked the project for almost two years and is now going bankrupt. So he needs whatever money back he can, so finally he's ready to let us go ahead. The problem is the strings that are attached. Now, making the film involves (a) making it on a lower budget—because we spent a lot of money already—basically for nothing; and (b) returning him some money. That means we have to make the movie for much less money, so we're trying to figure out if we can do it. It's something that will happen—or not—in the next few weeks, really, because we need winter. It's a winter film. We will be shooting in January or late January. Either it's happening right now, or not at all. Which is not the nice part of filmmaking! It's really exciting, you know? [laughs]

NOTEBOOK: Finally, were you thinking of any specific films while making Personal Shopper?

ASSAYAS: Not really. But again, you know, I had finished writing and I went to see Blow Up at the French Cinémathèque, and I realized, [laughing] "my god." Obviously it's not the same story, but all of a sudden I understood a layer of Blow Up that had not occurred to me before. It's really interesting the way you project things on movies. The way, at different moments in your life, you see different things.

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