Man of vision Olivier Assayas is not your average filmmaker. The Parisian director is the kind of filmmaker that makes critics blush, his last feature Clouds of Sils Maria making its way onto a sizable share of Critic Top Ten Lists circa 2014/15. Dedicated to making bold, often female-led poetic musings, Assayas is celebrated for helping shape rounded, vibrant characters. For the second time, Assayas pairs with Kristen Stewart to tell an unconventional ghost story in Personal Shopper, a woeful tale of a woman’s tedious professional life and search for peace after her brothers passing ingrained within larger themes of spirituality and self-doubt. Unsurprisingly at this point, Stewart is phenomenal in the role, with more emotion spilling from her jittery, anxiety-wracked texting fingers than in some lesser performer’s entire arsenal.
Assayas’ tale mixes grief, hope, anguish, high fashion, celebrity, a murder mystery and an ectoplasm-spewing ghost all in one feature. All over the map, Personal Shopper is an existential odyssey that challenges the viewer to look beyond the obvious to hopefully draw some pertinent conclusions about the world at large. I spoke with the acclaimed director about the novel narrative blend he has concocted, talking about spirituality, the relationship between the conscious and subconscious, modern anxieties in a post-Trump world and working with Kristen Stewart.
Let’s talk Personal Shopper is an absolutely fascinating feature. I found it provocative and spooky and touching in many ways. I wanted to know what inspired you to find the confluence between the world of high fashion and an old-fashioned ghost story.
OA: Well, it was actually more about tension between those two elements. I really came from the desire to make a film about a character who is torn between her paying job, between the job she doesn’t like, the frustrating job she does for a living, and her hope, her ambition, and the longing in her own individual or intellectual life. I felt from there that it is about exaggerating that tension. I like the idea that she is going through this grieving for her lost brother and she’s trying to reconnect with him and that spirituality.
There’s many supernatural/spiritual elements to the film. How much of these are reflections of your own feelings of the afterlife or a spiritual world?
OA: You know I suppose brief is the right word. I I certainly do believe there is more to the world than what we experience and what’s in front of us. What we have in the world is much more complex than things that are factual and tangible. We have a communication with our own subconscious and have within us things that we don’t completely understand and it’s something great between the subconscious and the conscious and that the things we call ghosts are actually something within us in that grey area between those two understandings. We feel and experience that tension. I think that we all have a very personal and specific relationship to the inner dimensions of us. I think it’s a question for all of us, am important question that has to do with our living. I think the movie is more about questions and I am asking my own questions.
For a medium, there’s a modicum of being able to know the unknown, of tapping into these supernatural elements of life. It’s finding certainty where for a lot of people there isn’t certainty. For Marie in the film, it’s the not knowing that proves so crushing to her. I’m wondering in a world where the truth seems harder and harder to pin down, is there some kind of warning in this that ignorance may indeed prove to be blissful?
OA: I think that’s a very good question. I think that this movie is in its own way trying to the inner world. It’s a film that’s trying to make sense of the questions we ask ourselves. It has a character who hardly believes in the supernatural. She is kind of stuck who has a brother who believes in it and she has made this oath and it’s the last thing she can do for her brother. She can at least pretend. But does she really believe? I think that where the film is also about hope it’s ultimately because a sign comes. At the end, there is a scene where she opens herself to ghosts and she no longer believes a sign will come. She’s over it. She’s finished. And that’s exactly when her brother appears in the background behind her and she doesn’t see it. At that point, you think, “She had a chance. She lost it, and the chance will never come back.” But ultimately at the end of the film the chance comes back and the answer comes but it’s all about finding the solution in yourself. Trust yourself and trust your instincts. I don’t think in that sense it deals with truth or the untruth of reality. It’s more about trusting your own inner intuition, your instinct and not to just expect the answer to come to you. So in that sense, I don’t think the movie is so much about the post-truth world.
The world that we find ourselves currently living in is one of many percolating anxieties. There’s a lot of social anxiety, political anxiety, moral anxiety, and I think that this film embodies a lot of those modern anxieties that we’re dealing with on a macro scale. How do you think this film deals with the many global anxieties we’re facing and why do you think it’s an important story to be told now?
OA: You know, I think we go through something that is an identity crisis. I think that’s happening all over the world. Which also has to do with the fact that we live in a world that is so materialistic that we have lost touch with spirituality. Spirituality is a big word and I’m always cautious with the way I use it. What I am saying is that there are moral values and there are ethical values. Also we have within ourselves this longing to connect to something that gives meaning to the human experience, maybe that’s spiritual or political or whatever, but we need to be able to connect to something bigger than us, not social media or Twitter, that’s something I’m pretty quite of. Even death and mourning needs to in its own way kind of make sense. We want there to be something to our pain and our suffering.
In terms of your working relationship with Kristen Stewart, you recently directed her to extreme acclaim with her work with Clouds of Sils Maria and you’ve doubled back to work with her here again. Can you talk about your working relationship and why she’s someone you’ve circled back with twice? Do you see that as something that will continue?
OA: I hope so. I think that I have such a strange relationship with Kristen.It’s not like we have long conversationns or whatever, I think we have non-verbal communication. I think we really understand each other and she has totally been an inspiration. I think that I give her something that other movies haven’t really given her and that’s space for her acting. When we were making Clouds of Sils Maria, I told her it was ok to be herself. Don’t try to create a character. Use your own emotions, your own identity, your own sense of humor. I think she enjoyed it. She realized it was okay to be herself. And I think that she brought to me was so original. She touched and embodied the energy, the dynamics. She carried something of the modern world in her. I think she gave herself over and showed a desire to go further. And from Clouds of Sils Maria, I knew she would be right for Personal Shopper. I think, we can try and do more in the nearest possible future.