Spookily strange ghost movie Personal Shopper hits the UK this week, starring an unmissable Kristen Stewart.
It’s director is the genre-bending auteur Olivier Assayas – you can hear him in conversation with me and Robert Elms on my regular BBC London Radio slot here:
And here’s an interview I did with him for The New European last week.
How To Make A Haunted Movie
As a former film critic, Olivier Assayas followed a typically French path to becoming a director. But his wide-ranging career since he took up the camera over the pen has cemented him as one of the foremost European film makers of his generation.
He has been a labelled a modernist and a globalist, his films always concerned with layers of reality and questioning the nature of film itself while crossing borders and boundaries. Assayas has worked with actors from Maggie Cheung to Edgar Ramirez, Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart on subjects from vampires to country houses (Summer Hours) to porcelain factories (Les Destinees Sentimentales), friendship (Late August, Early September) international terrorism (the epic series Carlos) and, now, Personal Shopper, a ghost story set the world of Paris fashion. Next, he might be about to work with Sylvester Stallone. He may be European and global but he’s also remained very, very French.
“In the end, I don’t know what language my films are in,” he tells me, in a mix of English and French. “I think Personal Shopper is mostly in English, but I wrote it in French, and then I had it translated, and then on set Kristen Stewart appropriated it for herself and turned it into her idiom and I guess I directed her in English while talking to most of the crew in French… oh, c’est complique, but not really.”
Assayas, you see, is more interested in the language of cinema than any prosaic parametres of grammar and verb declension. “Film is there to experiment, after all,” he reasons. “I like that notion of keeping it exciting as a medium, and challenging, bringing audiences something they’ve never seen before and, of course as a film maker, that means doing something that hasn’t been done before.”
A film about grief, fashion, text messaging and ghosts, Personal Shopper definitely falls into that category. Certainly, some will find it weird – it was booed on its first screening at Cannes last year. But, such is the nature of Cannes, it was also cheered.
Kristen Stewart may have seemed an unlikely Assayas collaborator when first they worked together on The Clouds of Sils Maria in 2013. She was still K-Stew, one of the hottest celebrities on the planet due to the trilogy of Twilight movies in which she’d played Bella, a teenager in love with Robert Pattinson’s vampire. Although Assayas had actually dealt with vampires and actresses in his spry 1989 breakthrough movie Irma Vep (the title’s an anagram, geddit?), the pair seemed to have little in common, yet her role in his film, playing opposite Juliette Binoche as assistant to a great actress, seemed to launch Stewart on a new path, personally and professionally.
It earned her critical praise – including an award at the Cesars, the French Oscars – and awakened in her a desire to experiment and explore her talents in films away from the Hollywood mainstream.
“She is 100 percent genuine in front of the camera, all of the time,” says Assayas. “There isn’t an untruthful moment with her but she works very hard and with utter commitment toward that moment – I mean, if there is a word she’s just a tiny bit uncomfortable with, that she feels is a bit awkward for her character, she will adapt it for herself. And it’s always better, because she is instinctively right, in her expressions and in her movements. She’s a very physical performer and very powerful with her body, even in a motorcycle helmet.
“I think that’s why big Hollywood films might not get the best out of her yet, because there is not much room for manoeuvre, but I’m sure she will soon go back to them and be sensational. She is still very young.”
You cannot take your eyes off her in Personal Shopper, in which she plays Maureen, a young American woman, employed as the personal shopper for a famous model and fashionista. She dashes around Paris, picking up outfits from the hippest boutiques and revered houses, trying clothes on for her client and then hopping back on her moped to courier them up to a slick but soulless apartment whose owner is rarely there.
At the same time, she is nervously re-visiting the ghostly, cold mansion in one of those haughty areas just outside Paris, like Ville D’Avray. It’s the house in which she grew up and where her twin brother has recently died, occasioning the sale of the property which, for Maureen, clearly contains many memories, not all good. She feels a sense of profound dislocation in her grief but feels she also has spiritual qualities, like those of a medium, and that she can still contact her dead twin if she stays in the house, where she says she still feels his presence. She tries seances and watches odd shows about mediums on YouTube.
Stewart’s edgy, millennial angst sends shivers jangling throughout the film. She is haunted, neurotic, distant yet alive with a brittle energy. Her job, which she disdains for its shallowness and superficiality, is nevertheless pretty cool (and well-paid) but it isn’t the clothes’ prettiness or expense that attracts her. Increasingly, the outfits give her the chance to try on a shiny new skin, to assume a new self. Needless to say, Kristen also looks awesomely cool in some of them, like she’s in a fashion shoot.
Says Assayas: “Fashion is all about surface, but Maureen is attracted to it despite herself. One reason being is that she is a person who is reconstructing herself and her own identity and I always find that within fashion there is that facet of questioning who one is, how one looks. Clothes are a costume in a sense, so it’s not entirely empty, not as empty as one might think on the surface, even if the clothes aren’t yours. It’s the same in a movie – the actress doesn’t always keep her outfits. You know, they often go on a tour, in a museum, without any living soul inside them, so they gain a life of their own, like ghosts.”
All this theorising is typical Assayas. He is a sharp dresser himself, in a simple, casual way – a smart cashmere jumper, an impressive leather jacket or natty bomber and crisp Agnes B shirt – but design and fashion have long been motifs in his work. “My mother used to design for Hermes,” he reveals, “so these things have been a constant in my life since I was a boy, and I see fashion from many angles, and what a serious business it is, even if people in it can be very superficial.”
It’s within this world that Maureen is seeking meaning and connection. And she eventually finds it in the unlikeliest of places: on the Eurostar.
Personal Shopper is quickly becoming famous for its revolutionary depicting of texting. Yes, the boundary Assayas breaks here requires little in the way of special effect or new camera angles or frenetic editing. It’s all about the best texting scenes ever.
Maureen has been sent from Paris over to London to pick up a dress from a British designer and Assayas follows this journey in what feels like real time, from the departure lounge at Gare du Nord, to the train journey, into St Pancras, in a taxi to a London mews, back to the station and onto the train.
It’s on the train back that Maureen’s phone starts dinging with texts. Could this be the contact she has yearned for? Could she be texting with her brother? It certainly feels like it. The texter knows so much about her. She quickly engages with the unknown sender, like a lover receiving instructions to a trysts, sexts, even. The screen is for long moments filled with nothing so spectacular as a phone screen display, wavering with those three dots that come up when someone is texting something in reply on the other end (there must be a name for those…?).
“I wanted to transfer onto the cinema screen the dynamic, the energy, the complexity of text messaging,” explains Olivier. “I know it doesn’t seem much but I’d never seen it done before. Hitchcock was famous for making suspense in telephone calls and we are used to that now, but not with texts. I thought that would be interesting, you know, the waiting, the physical speed of typing the words, the shorthand for it, the way we respond so quickly but can self-censor half way through. I wanted to get all this. I thought it would be quite easy, but actually in terms of shooting, it was a total nightmare.”
Shooting it “live”, the camera crew spent every spare moment filming close-ups of phone screens, while Assayas tried to work out what his actress was responding to on her screen. Which message was she reading? Which look, which reaction related to which line of text?
“I had to resynchronise the rhythm, the pace of the texting, the waiting, the timing, the reading of it, the tension of the wait, it took me ages. I was tinkering with the pace and editing, the wait of one or two seconds right ’til the last day. I mean, i couldn’t sleep for seeing text messages on my brain.”
It worked. As an example of how technology and communication impact on our modern lives, there are few films more intuitive about it. “I believe communication technology, over the last 20 years has totally changed the way we function as humans on many levels, the way we behave and act. As a director we simply can’t avoid this in films, so if you make a contemporary story with current characters, it’s part of who we are. We relate to these technologies, they dominate our thinking, our behaviours. Like so much, they’re addictive, so I don’t think film can escape from them.
“And texting is unique – you know an email is like a letter, a phone chat is like talking to someone next to you, but texting is very new, and has no previous cinematic reference point. It has its own logic, its own modernity, it’s a new beast that interferes with our lives on top of something else, a conversation on a meta level, and puts us on a very specific tension. That’s what I wanted to reproduce on film.
“And Kristen understood that, because she’s very of that age, a digital native, and she was very on board with the notion that part of her performance in this film would be very focused on her thumbs.”
I joke that if she didn’t win the Palm d’Or, then the Thumb d’Or would have sufficed. Amazingly, Olivier laughs at my pun in one of his high-pitched, snuffly giggles.
The texting brings us to discuss a deeper level of Personal Shopper, and how travel has been changed by technology, in terms of cinema at least. Maureen’s journey on the Eurostar is spent both staring out of the window at the flatness of the Pas de Calais, or dull Kent towns, yet it is also still attached to the city she never left.
“These days, we are simultaneously on the move, yet also still where we were, still connected,” muses Assayas. “Travel used to be moving to another space, adapting to a new environment, but now you don’t really leave the previous space, you can remain in that reality while still existing in a new one, and one is not more real than that other – they co-exist in your headspace or in your hand. It’s why I made this a ghost story, to get this tension, the inner world of our imaginations and thoughts and how we co-exist in them while living a material life. We are all split – we need to make a living but while we don’t have access to our subconscious, it’s always with us, all day. Instead, we have access to the internet, to another layer of constant thought and communication and we can never be rid of it. It follows us….”
It is this sense of eeriness that pervades Personal Shopper, a sense of angst, of being followed, of being afraid. When I first saw this film, the world was different, pre-Brexit, pre-Trump, yet it rumbled with foreboding. Assayas concedes, eventually, that he does believe his film, like his lead character, is haunted.
“I will say, that not only is it pre-Brexit, but we shot it during the time of the Paris attacks. A week later and all the scenes on the streets of Paris – Rue du Faubourg St Honore, Rue de la Paix, La Madeleine – we would not have been able to shoot them at all.
“But we had moved to studios in Prague to shoot interiors just before the attacks happened. Of course, it was a profound shock. I mean half the crew live and work around the Bataclan – everyone on set knew someone directly affected. It was terrifying and everyone was glued to their mobile phones of course, texting between every take, filled with the tension of awaiting a response that could be tragic or of huge relief.
“So while I don’t think the film predicted anything directly or reflected any actuality, there is something in there, a dark cloud over it. You can sense it’s a movie about ghosts and death, and then death hit very near, so the film absorbed this trauma. Yes, it was a haunted movie.”
I wonder, does Assayas, who has dealt with globalisation in films such as Demonlover and Boarding Gate, feels that Europe itself is now haunted? I couldn’t help, on seeing the film again, but marvel at how it seemed to both depict a different era yet intuit an insecure future.
“Yes there are many different characters, you know, a German, a Russian, an American in Paris who has to travel to London, and we ourselves were crossing to Prague and back. The logistics within the film reflected how it became a complex patchwork that was difficult enough, shooting across borders and I think it will only get harder now,” he says.
“All of sudden the world has become much more dangerous and I just don’t get borders anymore. Globalisation is THE modern issue, I feel. It has become a dirty word, but I don’t see it as that. It’s about connections and being aware of what’s happening with our neighbours. It should be about closeness and proximity, not distancing ourselves from each other.” He lets out a sigh of exasperation, tinged with worry. He looks a little haunted.
“Look, the only way I can personally deal with it is by being very conscious of it in my movies – I mean, I’m not a militant but things are changing and we’re stuck with it but as artists, we can perhaps influence the way people feel about them and how they interpret them. A ghost story like Personal Shopper just felt right. At best, it might help people not feel alone in what they’re feeling.”