French filmmaker Olivier Assayas has been directing acclaimed dramas for decades, but few have been as divisive as Personal Shopper, a horror-drama that stars Kristen Stewart as an assistant to a professional model who makes contact with the supernatural. Personal Shopper premiered to standing ovations as well as loud “boos” at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, where Assayas ultimately earned the Best Director prize (which he shared with Cristian Mungiu, who directed Graduation).
After a reaction like that there was no way I was going to miss Personal Shopper at the Toronto International Film Festival, and sure enough, I found the film to be a wise meditation on our relationship with death and anxiety, propped up by at least one of the scarier scenes in recent memory. Later, I sat down with Olivier Assayas to discuss the film’s controversial reception, the connections it makes between technology and spirituality, and why – for the second time in a row, after the acclaimed Clouds of Sils Maria – he has cast Kristen Stewart as a personal assistant.
Personal Shopper arrives in theaters this weekend. (This interview was originally published during the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.)
Crave: This might seem like an odd question but I want to start here… what made you want to make a movie about shopping?
Oliver Assayas: [Laughs.] I don’t think… I don’t think I made a movie about shopping. Maybe one day I will make one. But you know, it’s a movie about the tension between, obviously, the kind of day job people have and their longings, which are much more, possibly, a little bit more ambitious or complex. I think I wanted the character of Maureen to have, not exactly the most stupid job, but certainly the most alienating job. I don’t think that just shopping for a celebrity, I don’t think there’s something that’s much more alienating than that.
So yeah, it’s not that I have [something] bad to say about the fashion industry, but still, it’s become the epitome of something that has to do with materialism and money and a culture of fame and this and that. So I think it’s fairly easy to understand why someone like Maureen, like her character, has an uneasy relationship with that job and that world.
She seems somewhat allured by it, but do you think that’s symptomatic of her anxieties about living her own life?
I think we all have an ambivalent relationship with the modern world. We describe it as materialistic, we describe it as obsessed with superficiality, sure, but at the same time we are attracted by it. We don’t have a full rejection of it. We somehow are part of it. And it’s the same for her but we are dealing with a character who is… she did not just lose her brother, it’s more like she lost half of herself, and she’s trying to become one again. So she’s kind of searching her own identity and including her gender, in the sense that she’s on that thin line between androgyny and womanhood. I think that the stupid job she does, buying clothes and glamorous clothes and this and that, is something which also attracts her in the sense of experimenting her own relationship with her own womanhood.
She lost her brother. She lost a part of herself. But she has the same condition her brother had and death at any time. This is a fear I myself have a lot, just in general. Why was it necessary to set that story in a world where ghosts are real? Unequivocally real?
Because… I think it’s just to make something a little abstract, real. Because we call ghosts, forces, presences, things that are around us, that are ultimately part of us. They are part of our distortion of reality around us, in a certain way. But we should not be blinded by the name “ghosts.” It’s all about, really, connecting with another dimension of the world, and we know that there’s another dimension to the world because [touches various objects around him] the material world is not the end of it. So we all try to explore that in a way. Here we give it a name. We give it the name “ghosts” and yes, I kind of used the materiality of it, which ultimately in the film is more like an hallucination, but somehow it helps. It allows me to bring in a few genre elements which make the whole process just a little bit more exciting. It adds tension, let me put it that way.
Do you feel you’ve worked properly within the horror genre before?
Well obviously no, I have not, and this one is certainly not a straight genre [film]. You know, it’s the story of Maureen, which involves a few genre elements here and there.
What appeals to you about that genre though? What made you want to play with it?
It’s because I’ve been incredibly influenced by genre filmmakers, that’s one part of it, and I think that the superiority of genre filmmaking is the relationship it has with the body of the audience. I think a lot of serious filmmaking has a hard time connecting with the physicality of the audience, whereas genre, it just goes through the whole body. You react, you can’t control reaction sometimes to genre filmmaking. So yeah, I think that the filmmakers who were ultimately the strongest influence on me, if I want to be totally honest about this, they are genre filmmakers. John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, Wes Craven, a few others.
There’s a conversation Maureen has – I don’t want to give it away – with the person on the other end of the phone, and they talk about horror movies and what scares her about them. The theory goes that she is scared of being scared. That’s an element of the horror genre as well. I know a lot of people who won’t watched horror movies because they don’t like being scared.
You have people who overreact to them. You know, we all have different relationships to horror filmmaking, but a lot has to do with the love we have of being scared. I have a small daughter and even when it’s about looking cartoons or whatever the first question is, “Is it scary?” because she wants the stories to be scary. We also love that. We fear it and we love it.
Tell me about the scene where Maureen takes her phone off airplane mode. Where did that scene come from? It’s such a great scare.
It was pretty much in the screenplay as it is, but the issue was to get it right and it was very difficult to get it right. I redid that shot like a million times.
Just for the timing…?
Yes, it’s the timing. To get the timing right was just absurdly complicated, to get the timing, and in the end it’s the only one… I finally felt what I wanted to feel in that shot when we slowed it down. It’s the only phone screen in the film that’s actually slowed down because it gives this kind of weird vibration, and you know, I remember the special effects guy. He came to me, “I’m sorry there’s this kind of vibration, we will fix it, we’ll get it right,” and [I said] “No, no, no, no, no, just keep the vibration. It’s great!”
Phones have created, in many ways, a lot of opportunities for filmmakers and also they’ve taken a lot of opportunities away. I see people in the horror genre often struggling with how to use a phone. Often the goal is to just get rid of a phone and say, “I can’t get any reception” so the phone is gone for the rest of the film.
[Laughs.] Yeah, exactly. I know.
And yet in your film it’s almost necessary, it’s this metaphor for connecting with another entity. Am I reading that right?
Yes! Yes, completely, completely. I’m playing slightly with this communication between two different eras. I mean this film is in this weird zone where you dialogue with the end of the 20th century, which is really the time when people were taking seriously communication with another world. There is this window in time between the middle of the 19th century and the early years or the 20th century when people just took extremely seriously the possibility of communicating with spirits. It was not something mystical or weird or whatever. It was connected with modern technology. It was considered on the same level as the invention of x-ray photography, or the invention of radio communication. So I used that period as an inspiration because I wanted the characters in the film to discuss the supernatural, or a parallel world, whatever you call it, as a fact. As something solid.
Why not just make the film a period piece?
Oh no, I was interested in projecting this in the modern world. I mean, using the past to question the present.
Why is it so interesting for you to make Kristen Stewart someone’s personal assistant?
Yeah, that’s a good question. I’m not sure why. [Laughs.] It just happened like that. I think she’s unlike a lot of movie stars. She is very… she’s so present. She’s straightforward. She’s so simple. With her, she doesn’t inspire many characters that are bigger than life. She inspires me [to write] someone who is part of the crowd, and I think that’s because she is beautiful, she has such a powerful presence, but at the same time she is grounded. She is normal. So I think it’s really interesting to de-glamorize her because I think she’s someone you relate to on a very simple, natural, human level.
What do you have planned for the third installment of the “Kristen Stewart is a Personal Assistant” trilogy?
[Laughs.] It should be a trilogy.
You don’t have to rush it. You have time.
I want to make a period piece. I want to make a period piece with Kristen.
Can you tell me what you have in mind…?
No, no, no, I have no idea. That’s the concept, yeah.
I’d pay to see that. Personal Shopper has had very polarizing reactions. Is that satisfying as a filmmaker? Is that frustrating?
It’s Cannes. It’s Cannes, you know? What can I say? I’ve been going to Cannes since I’m in my 20s or something, my early 20s so I’ve been going there for a while. [Thinks.] You don’t make movies to be consensual, you don’t make movies to be divisive, neither. But you don’t know what you’ve done. Now looking back on it I don’t think… I think it’s a movie that’s challenging. I think that’s part of what I’m happy with. So honestly I’m happier to have a movie that creates tensions because at least A) the film is alive, and B) it has an audience that is alive. There’s people that are not, like, sleeping through the film or something. [Laughs.]
But then you’re always happier when people just understand what you have been doing and care about it or some such. But you know, filmmaking is about taking risks, and I come from a culture where taking risks was something that was respected or appreciated, or it was a plus. Here, now, I think gradually that people don’t like you to take risks. You know, it’s more like, “Why don’t you do it the usual way? Why don’t you tell this story in a normal way? Why surprise us?”
But then we complain, “Oh, he’s doing the same thing he always does.”
Yeah, it’s Cannes. [Laughs.] It’s Cannes. You never know what will come out of that.
What’s next? Is it that period piece?
I have been, like a couple of years ago, I wrote and prepared a film that was kind of shut down like a day before shooting, here in Canada, which was like an expensive international film. It might be happening again so I’m kind of looking forward to that.
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Top Photo: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.