10 Questions for Director Olivier Assayas | reviews, news & interviews
10 Questions for Director Olivier Assayas
10 Questions for Director Olivier Assayas
The director of 'Personal Shopper' on Kristen Stewart, the supernatural and the secret meaning of texts
Olivier Assayas was born into French cinema, as the son of screenwriter Jacques Remy, but his three acclaimed decades as a director have followed a mazy course. His latest film, Personal Shopper, continues his potent collaboration with Kristen Stewart (pictured below), after her supporting role in Clouds of Sils Maria (2014). She plays Maureen, a medium with a day-job as a supermodel’s personal shopper, who’s awaiting a post-death sign from her recently deceased brother. Assayas observes her with a mix of cool detachment, queasy eeriness and hot bursts of horror which typifies his work’s curiosity and contrasts.
Irma Vep (1996) made his name internationally, with Hong Kong action star Maggie Cheung playing herself in an anarchic meta-movie about a chaotic film shoot. Assayas has drawn on his counter-cultural youth in the wake of May ’68, in Cold Water (1994) and Something In the Air (2012). Yet he has also veered into period drama, corporate warfare around control of Japanese anime porn in Demonlover (2002), the sleazy Hong Kong B-movie Boarding Gate (2007), and Carlos (2010), a gripping 5 ½ hour dissection of the life and work of infamous Seventies terrorist Carlos the Jackal.
Assayas was married to Maggie Cheung from 1998 to 2001. In 2009, he wed Mia Hansen-Løve, a novice actress in his films Late August, Early September (1998) and Sentimental Destinies (2000), before she became an equally successful director with the likes of last year’s Things To Come.
Assayas, 62, looks lean and youthful when we meet in a book-lined room in a Fitzrovia hotel where, like adjacent, rapidly gentrifying Soho, other conversations are the murmured sound of vast money being made. Still a knowledgeable rock’n’roll fanatic, he cares more about my Mott the Hoople T-shirt (“Ahh – I saw them at the Albert Hall, in the early Seventies…”). There’s a light, interested tone to the talk of this French intellectual with often earthy, even lurid tastes.
NICK HASTED: You’ve said that all your films represent deep aspects of yourself. With this one, was it to do with how you’ve grieved, and the persistence of those you’ve lost?
OLIVIER ASSAYAS: It’s difficult to give you a good answer. Because it’s something that runs very deep. I suppose the reason that I had to do this film is to do with the thing that I’ve always been obsessed with, even as a child, which is the supernatural. I don’t know if I believe or not in the supernatural. But you always have strong childhood memories of things that are a part of yourself. I grew up in the countryside, and my father was a writer and an avid reader, so he had this kind of writer’s library, a lot of stuff going in all directions. And very early, when you grow up in that kind of environment, you are drawn to the books. And my father had a whole part of the library that had to do with the supernatural. And I remember there was a trilogy about death by a French scientist of the late 19th century, Camille Flamarrion. The first book was about signs of death, foretold. The second one was about the moment of death, and the people who foretell the moment of death of friends or family when they’re somewhere else, and the third one was about how the dead would communicate with us after death. I’m not saying I believe that stuff. But as a child it made a huge impression on me. It just scared the shit out of me! Even now, I remember reading these books and, like all kids, you like to be scared, really scared. And also it was presented in a very scientific way. Camille Flamarrion was also an astronomer. And so, what stayed with me was the notion that there could be some kind of parallel universe. In a very childish way. I’m not a mystic, or whatever. But I’m attuned to the notion that there could be something else, and it kind of scares me. So maybe because I can feel it, I can make a movie about it. I think you have to be as basic as that.
The sequence that most impressed me in Personal Shopper is when Maureen is going to and fro on the Eurostar, going through the security gates and then back on automatic, and picking her phone back up from her luggage to keep texting with barely a pause. The phone’s buzz keeps breaking up the background around her, and her life seems in transit, atomised and insubstantial. Is that one kind of ghost existence you were thinking about with this film?
Well, that’s the way we live, isn’t it? What I was interested in is how connectedness has transformed human experience. I’m not so interested in technology per se, but in how it affects human beings. And I think it changes the way we live and perceive ourselves, with our constant connectedness – how we can start a conversation anytime, anywhere, because we have this phone that connects us to some parallel reality. The way we use it also to escape reality, the second we get bored or have nothing to do. These are things that are part of human behaviour, and they are kind of fascinating. I used to think something about it, and now I take it for granted. I take it as a meteorological event!
It seems to connect up with the rest of the film, in the sense that Maureen, or what’s around her, becomes more immaterial.
Yes, the film in that sense is about loneliness, and how in loneliness maybe we connect more acutely with our inner world. But in this film, as in life I suppose, connecting to our inner self is very similar to visiting the internet and communicating with absent friends. You are not less alone. Because in the pre-digital age when you were alone, you were still busy communicating with the voices inside you, or you were having an inner dialogue with a book, which is what art is about. Now because we live in such a spectating culture, we assume when someone is watching a film, listening to a song, looking at a canvas, they are on the receiving end. Whereas it’s about being in a conversation, really, with the work of art. The same way Maureen can be alternately in communication with a painting by Hilma af Klint, and the voices she hears, or the sound she hears coming from her departed brother.
One way you do use technology that’s really interesting is in scenes where texting is a Hitchcockian, visually dramatic thing – like the way the texts climb Maureen’s telephone as the threatening texter is climbing the stairs to her flat.
Well, the way texting has invited itself into our lives for the last quarter-century is an interesting event, and it’s worth exploring its syntax, because it generates a certain fascination and a tension that we all know and understand. I genuinely thought there was something dramatically interesting there, which had never really been tried, and it was worth trying not merely to use it as a convenient prop, but as something that has a life of its own. I thought when I was writing the scene and it went on and on and on, it was overly simple. But it was deceptively simple, actually! It was extremely difficult to get right, but that was the point of it. The specific dynamics of texting have to do with our focus on the screen, and our attention to the tiniest details.
Another thing that you show meticulously in several films is how people do their jobs - whether it’s Carlos (Edgar Ramirez as Carlos, pictured above) committing a terrorist act or the actress and film crew in Irma Vep, or the personal shopper here. Is that something that you find revealing?
I think whatever the story is that you’re telling, cinema has a documentary dimension. And I think it’s vital. It’s something that grounds the narrative. In Personal Shopper, the way she does her best to do a stupid job is something anyone can relate to. So it creates a sort of empathy, because you know what she’s going through. She needs to make a living at a stupid job, but ultimately it’s not that horrible, and as stupid as it is, she tries to do it right, she tries to adapt to the whims of her boss. She’s serious. She’s a good person trying to do her job the best she can, as angry as it gets her.
Is that documentary element, even in this age of digital realities, the ghost of Bresson in your work?
It’s not just Bresson. All the best film-making has to do with a documentary element. When I was doing Carlos, it was all about research, because it’s the past and I was not there, whereas here it’s a work of imagination. But it’s a similar process. In Carlos, what will make it feel real is when you really go into the detail of things, all the tiny nuances, and even the most trivial will end up being essential. Actually, the trivial will be more essential than what seems to be central.
No, there’s no film-maker I admire more than Bresson, he’s been a huge influence. In terms of my style I’ve been moving in completely different directions, obviously. But what I’ve stuck to in terms of Bresson is maybe the experimental side. I think Robert Bresson is a purist, but he’s also an experimentalist. He constantly tries things. His films seem to have a Bresson style, but a Bresson style is something that’s reinvented from film to film. So I think I use that as a guide.
Kristen Stewart (pictured above in Clouds of Sils Maria with Juliette Binoche) was saying about this role that it was nice to play the part of someone who could go shopping. Her problem is the opposite of Maureen’s…
Yes, yes, exactly! There’s many ways to answer that, but the simplest would be to say that what I’m interested in is Kristen the person, as opposed to Kristen the actress, or the A-list star. So I need to be rid of it – I need to throw the burden of fame onto someone else, in the film. So this notion of fame, of celebrity, is part of the film, but it’s deflected, and so that allows the audience to see her stripped of that dimension.
Having just seen another film she has on release, Certain Women, there is something in both those performances that’s tense, clenched, introverted. Do you think there’s a generational aspect to her acting style?
No, I don’t think so. Like all great actors, Kristen is a reluctant actress. It’s really like she’s resisting being an actor. And basically, whatever performance she does, it’s about going beyond just being an actor, because she doesn’t like the position of the actor enjoying his job. She needs to question the position of the actor before doing anything. And she’s constantly struggling to overcome it. That’s what gives this tension and energy to whatever she does. And Brando is not a bad reference, in the sense that she has this rebellious dimension to her…
And the way he became embarrassed by acting…
Yeah. Yeah, she has that.
You said when you were on set making Personal Shopper that “she’s challenging the scenes”. Was that in the ways that you’ve just described?
The intensity that she brings to her acting is never burdensome. Some actors can bring something on the set that’s disruptive, but absolutely not, she’s the quietest person, sitting there, doing her thing. She doesn’t generate any kind of tension outside of the shot, but when the shot starts she inhabits it. The intensity she brings, the way she’s willing to go all the way, and eventually further, in any given shot is something that’s challenging for me as a writer and as a filmmaker. I’ve always said that once I give an actor a part, he kind of takes over. He knows more than I do about the part. And in that sense, I want to be the first spectator to whatever happens, and I want it to be different from whatever I’ve written in the screenplay. I’m looking to bring some different energy from whatever I’ve put down on paper. And Kristen ends up being the perfect embodiment of that, in the sense that whenever I give her any space, she engages very strongly, and I have to be on the same level. So there’s a mutual stimulation which creates a very specific energy, which basically ends up being this film.
There was a quote from Mia Hansen-Løve a little while back, in The Guardian: “It was through filming that I found genuine pleasure, intensity and a sense of belonging which to this day I’ve never found anywhere else.” I wondered if you recognise that feeling?
And is it then almost inevitable that the women you’ve married are from that world?
[Laughs] That’s not what I thought I was getting myself into at the time! When we met, Mia was not a film-maker at all. She played in a couple of my films, but she didn’t really want to be an actress, she was a student studying German philosophy, and I had just divorced Maggie Cheung (pictured above in Irma Vep). And I thought, okay, maybe it’s better to try someone who’s not in film-making, you know! [laughter] But oh boy, how wrong was I! But the thing is, I sensed that Mia was an artist, that there was something profoundly artistic about her, and I suppose that’s part of the bond we had very early. I’m not surprised she’s become the great filmmaker she has. It’s so fascinating to be witness to a process which is in many ways very similar to your own process. She became a filmmaker in a very similar way to how I became a filmmaker, and it’s fascinating how eventually you can feel you are part of passing on something.
As happened to you through your father perhaps…
When you were working as an editor at Pinewood, were you working on some sort of dinosaur film, as Gilles does in Something In the Air? (this sequence pictured below, evoking Kevin Connor's 1975 U-boat crew vs dinosaurs yarn The Land that Time Forgot).
I was a trainee with Stuart Baird in the editing rooms for Superman. But on the next set Kevin Connor was shooting one of his dinosaur films [The People That Time Forgot, 1977], and I used to visit his set because they were huge fun. They were really cheesy, but great in a certain way.
So when you stepped behind the scenes in Superman, what did that sort of filmmaking look like to you?
Well, it was fascinating. Because I did not know at that time what kind of movies I would ever make – or if I’d make movies. I hoped I would, but I wasn’t sure what kind of direction I would go. But now I would say what I was witnessing was in the direction of what was to come, in the sense that a lot of cinema became animation, as opposed to the kind of filmmaking I’ve been sticking to which has to do with reality, and I’d make some kind of ideological point about that. At the time, I was just fascinated by the fact that I was witnessing the texture of cinema change. I was an eyewitness to something that was huge, and no one realised how huge it was. People had not absorbed the fact that it was changing the way cinema could be made. And I was at a very interesting section, because I was printing numbers [he makes a stamping sound] on all the film stock of the dailies [daily footage developed to be checked]. But the dailies came from five or six different crews. There was the actual principal photography with Richard Donner which was happening on the sets at Pinewood. But also you had guys who were doing underwater filming in Bermuda, some guys who were doing background photography in the US, some guy who was doing mattes [background art], some guy who was doing model work, and the film came out of the conjunction of all that different material. And we were very far from filmmaking as we knew it. So I suddenly realised, there’s a revolution happening, and I thought it was a very interesting and exciting moment, so I used that knowledge to write a few long essays on the transformation of filmmaking. Because I was there when it happened…
When you have real genre, horror moments in Personal Shopper – as when there’s light glowing monstrously from inside a room next to a murdered corpse – do you really want that to be scary? Do you want that to work as a genre moment?
Yep. I’m using the genre syntax at a particular moment, because I think it’s interesting to share the fear, the panic of Maureen, in front of something she doesn’t understand, and that just scares the shit out of her. What’s great about genre filmmaking is that they have the audience react physically. And it’s something that more psychological cinema doesn’t do. In genre cinema, you react with the body, and there’s an interesting dimension to the identification you have with the protagonist at the moment. I’ve been a huge fan of Dario Argento, of John Carpenter, Wes Craven, David Cronenberg. For me they are the masters of modern filmmaking.
Having made this film because of those strong feelings from childhood of another world, has it changed anything for you?
Well I can verbalise it. I can talk about it. It’s a process of self-understanding. And maybe I would not have formulated it as simply as I’m trying to do now…
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