The Cellular as Spiritual: Olivier Assayas on ‘Personal Shopper’

Modernity is a ghost world for the French director.

The very standard scenario in which I meet Olivier Assayas — on a day when he’s giving a ton of interviews in a hotel lobby, designed with antique comfort precisely to hide the liminality of its purpose — at least feels fitting for a director so focused on lives lived in transitory spaces. This scene could be plucked from either of his most recent movies, 2014’s Clouds of Sils Maria and the just-released Personal Shopper, both of which create senses of limbo through examining high status artist lifestyles, and also the less visible labor that designs, supports, and upholds celebrity. (One of the fascinating things about celebrity, too, is that it monumentalizes people but also sees them becoming largely abstracted entities.)

Kristen Stewart stars in both films. In Clouds of Sils Maria, she plays Valentine, the assistant to Juliette Binoche’s revered veteran actress character. In one of the very few moments where she’s alone in that film — it’s as if her own existence hinges upon the needs and projections of her boss — we see her on a long drive through a mountain pass, before she gets out of her car and a fog begins swallowing her. Maureen, her character in Personal Shopper, meanwhile, selects the dresses that her movie star/fashion icon/gorilla “activist” boss will wear — but Maureen’s not allowed to wear them herself. Maureen creates the images by which a celebrity body becomes known, adored, and divvied up into perception, but her curation of another body leads to questions about the tangibility of her own: a genuinely isolated person, she moonlights as a medium who disappears from Paris to host seances in old French country mansions, who tries to make contact with her dead twin while still reeling from his loss, and who gets entangled in an act of brutality after text messaging with the Unknown — perhaps her dead brother, perhaps some anonymous person, perhaps her own imagination.

In Personal Shopper, Assayas’ 17th feature, the French director has created one of his strangest films yet — a genre mash-up with hints of the savageness of his 2002 film Demonlover, the soft mourning of 2008’s Summer Hours, the oneiric but sometimes satirical rendering of celebrity of Clouds of Sils Maria — and then just pure horror. Shopper escalates towards a shocking filmmaking feat: making a riveting, sexy, disquieting 20+ minute scene in which Kristen Stewart’s thumbs and disembodied text on a cell phone are the key players. In Assayas’ two recent, celebrity-oriented visions of modernity, the central question might not be, “Is Maureen’s brother’s ghost haunting her?” but rather, “Who in our world isn’t really someone else’s ghost?”

The director spoke at length about all of these ideas, before his publicist whisked him off to an interview for NPR, leaving me there with this recording in my phone.

Flavorwire: Ever since smartphones became the norm, there’s been this obstacle for filmmakers — texting is such a prevalent mode of communication, but it looks so clunky onscreen. I’ve seen it stylized all different ways, and it rarely feels effective. How did you come about this particularly dynamic mode of filming text messaging?

Olivier Assayas: Ultimately, I approached it the way I approach everything —I try to make it real. People have been trying to devise abstract ways, coded ways of dealing with it. I thought the interesting part of it is the human dynamic of it. But it’s so difficult to capture! You have to take it really seriously — my approach was, “Let’s see how this works, let’s have the actual text message on the screen and let’s have Kristen interact,” but once you put that into motion and try to reproduce the dynamics of that, it’s absurdly complicated. So really you have to shoot and shoot and shoot until you get it right.

[The scene] does reproduce traditional horror movie scare tactics — but with the ellipsis that comes on a text screen while the other person’s typing standing in for a door that’s been left mysteriously ajar. 

I have a lot of ideas about this which I didn’t think I had before! What’s exciting about text messaging is that it’s a completely new form of communication, and it’s something that functions on top of other ways of communicating — it’s something we’re doing while we’re doing something else. It has a very specific tension in terms of when the answer comes back, or how long you’ll take for yourself to answer. You’re constantly playing with that. Sometimes you’re texting with someone and the answer instantly pops up and sometimes you get the answer after two minutes — and that seems like a huge time. What has been going on during those two minutes?! Has that person been trying to find a way to verbalize whatever he or she is trying to express? Why two minutes? All of a sudden the precision of the timing and the wording, the context of where you are when you get the message, becomes intense — it’s very charged. It was interesting to see if I could transcribe into cinematic dramatics the specific, strange energy of text messaging.

The text scene is really unsettling in this new way; but for the main scene with an actual ghost, you seemed to be looking towards more traditional genre portrayals.

At some point I thought it was interesting to be able to reproduce whatever Maureen imagined. How I would represent the ghost was pretty much a question mark. And what I used was spiritualist photography from the 19th century. When you look at those photos, they’re very crude superimpositions, very naïve in a way. But still they’re kind of spooky. And they kind of nail something that has to do with our own fears of communicating with the supernatural. So I used those images, and also descriptions by mediums of what they saw or imagined they saw in séances. So we really worked from descriptions: there’s this presence, and it vomits an ectoplasm. That’s something that comes back constantly.

There’s this odd superficial gap in the way we differentiate ghost stories from stories about robots and A.I. — but the implications are pretty similar. In your film, there’s this simplicity to the technological object — and we don’t know what kind of consciousness is behind it, controlling and haunting it. It makes so much sense for ghost stories and technology to coalesce —

Sci-fi and ghost fiction are ultimately one in the same thing. It struck me a long time ago as a very young film journalist. I was interviewing David Cronenberg, who had just done The Brood, and at some point he said, “it’s a movie about my divorce.” And I think that sometimes when you use the language of genre, it’s because it’s the most accurate way of dealing with what’s actually happening in your life. Because sometimes we get mixed up by this border between imagination and reality. Reality is what’s happening outside of us; fiction is what’s happening inside of us. We live in a very abstract world, and we have to acknowledge that. To me the world of imagination, even the weirdest, is always part of the human experience. It’s always dealing with something real that’s happening. It’s like, Lord of the Rings is the reality happening in the imagination of Tolkien, as much as an Antonioni movie is about the reality in Antonioni’s imagination. The movies of John Carpenter, Cronenberg, Wes Craven, they were a huge influence — Dario Argento. I think it’s great art. That’s not B movie making. That’s A+ for me.

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One of the things that fascinates me the most about your movies is the fluidity of what we’d perceive to be “imaginary” versus real. Knowing that audiences — particularly, say, American audiences — are used to cinema that totally separates the two, how do you plan and structure the slips between “reality” and “symbol?” All of Clouds of Sils Maria feels like linear realism until just one specific moment really changes that. Whereas in Personal Shopper, those slips are all over the place.

I like the idea of playing with the expectation of the audience — I think it’s entertaining, but some audiences have been angry about it! “Why are you not going in the direction where you’re expected to go?” I’m not going in that direction because it’s boring! I think it’s more exciting if you play along — it’s like a game. So either you want to play the game or you don’t, but if you want to, it’s fun, it’s exciting.

Personal Shopper references the art of Hilma af Klint [an occult artist who was recently re-discovered — and kind of beat more famous artists to the punch with her pioneering use of abstract images]. Did you know a lot about her work and story conceiving this movie?

I was playing with the elements of the story when I bumped into her. It was a shock; I had no idea this was going to be part of the film. It came out of research, of being interested in modern painting. It was such a surprise to discover this artist in the sense that, in 1906, there was this woman who was doing that stuff, and she’s one of the great woman artists of the 19th century. It also completely transforms the gender narrative; she was kind of suppressed — no one suppressed her, but she did not want her work to be known. She consciously made the choice of not exhibiting it.

Didn’t she demand that it not be shown until 20 years after she died?

She felt it was so weird that no one would understand it. But she was totally convinced that her hand was guided by spirits; otherwise you would not have dared to go in that direction. I was really obsessing about her, and how all of a sudden her work is out there, and you’ll have to rewrite the history of modern painting in a certain way. No one had access to it [until 1986]. It’s like exhuming the skeleton of a dinosaur, and you have to rewrite the narrative. And I thought it was stimulating, and I wondered, ‘can I transcribe it in film?’ Is it possible to put into a film the importance of connecting with an artist?

Between this and Clouds of Sils Maria, you seem to really like putting Kristen Stewart on trains. Is there weight to the repetition of that image/location for you, or is it total coincidence?

I like the idea that she had to go to London from Paris, because when you go to London, you’re going underwater, and then you have the metal detectors, and then you have a lounge. All of a sudden the act of traveling to London was more interesting than maybe traveling to Brussels.

It’s like she’s entering another realm.

When I started writing it, I realized, ‘This is going to echo with Clouds of Sils Maria.

Between Maureen and Stewart’s character in Clouds, there’s also the phantasmal quality of invisible labor in these characters’ assistant positions. Was there a reason you chose celebrity and service work as a framework for a ghost story?

I’m interested in Kristen the person — that’s what inspires me, the very specific modern energy she has, the complexity of her inner dynamics, I think it’s absolutely fascinating. But I’m not interested in Kristen the movie star, which is some kind of abstract creation. So I think that in the movies I’ve been doing with her, I’ve needed to get rid of the celebrity thing and throw the burden of it on another character. So the celebrity issue is not in the way when you’re looking at the film.

How has working with an American actress in these central roles changed the angle with which you portray globalization?

I was really interested in this ghost world, and I liked the idea of shooting in Paris with people who are hardly in Paris — who are foreigners floating on the surface of the city. She’s within the flow of Parisian life, but at the same time she’s exterior to it, because she’s just passing by. She doesn’t have roots or a history there, she’s there because that’s where her brother lived. And she’s waiting for a sign in that alien environment. In the same way that Kiera, her boss, has a flat in Paris. But she spends like five minutes a year in that flat — maybe she meets her boyfriend there and that’s the only use of the place. I like the idea of this layered modern society that’s floating on reality, and all of sudden the reality is very similar to virtual reality. I didn’t want to exaggerate it, but it’s part of modern life — and it’s interesting trying to capture it.

As someone your age, as opposed to Maureen’s, you surely have a different perspective of contemporary isolation and communication than someone who grew up without having to transition into our new mode of communication.

I suppose so — but in a sense that I am more aware of how it has transformed us. If I had to say what I feel has changed in the human experience in the last quarter of a century, it’s certainly the use of digital communication has changed us. I’m not interested in text messaging, but rather how text messaging has changed us, our perceptions of ourselves and the people around us, and how being connected with a network genuinely changes our identity. However I’m showing it in this film is informed by my own experience of being on both sides of it.