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The Terror of the Text: Olivier Assayas and Kristen Stewart on Personal Shopper

Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

Personal Shopper, Olivier Assayas’s latest feature, begins with a classic horror movie trope: an evening spent in a haunted house. Kristen Stewart plays expat Maureen — not a paranormalist or twentysomething thrill-seeker but a personal clothes buyer and stylist to Kyra, a celebrity socialite and member of the Davos set. Something of a savant, Maureen does this job with an instinctual certainty but little evident pleasure. Whether that’s due to her preternatural cool or an overlay of mourning is unclear. But several months earlier, her brother, with whom she shares a congenital heart condition, died in a drafty mansion somewhere in the French countryside, and Maureen will now spend an evening in the house, waiting for a communique he promised he’d send her from beyond the grave. 

That communique arrives, but, significantly, it’s seen by only us, the audience, and not Maureen — and we can’t even be sure whether it’s a manifestation of her brother or some more sinister presence. Indeed, the ever-so-subtle digital poltergeist floats just outside of Maureen’s POV, signaling that while Maureen’s synapses may still be fogged by grief, Personal Shopper, the film, is no skeptic; it’s a work that believes

But believes in what? One of the greatest strengths of this intoxicating, deeply pleasurable entry in a subset of Assayas films riffing explicitly on genre themes (most explicitly, Demonlover, Boarding Gate and Irma Vep) is its blurring of the lines that usually circumscribe tales of the supernatural. Loosely recalling the ‘90s J-horror experiments of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, particularly Pulse, in Personal Shopper the boundary between life and death seems a particularly porous one. It’s a world where, belying the film’s energetic naturalism, digital communication facilitates a kind of disassociated speed of life, and where, for Maureen, everyday urban surroundings morph into a kind of extended liminal space. While dealing most directly with grief, Personal Shopper shuffles the narrative concerns of the traditional ghost story, concerning itself less with answering questions about guilt, or resolving the sins of the past, and more with asking questions about the ways in which contemporary life, with its constant pinging of technological and economic disruption, is reshaping our identities, our histories and the ways we communicate with one another.

After her evening in the house, Maureen returns to Paris where she goes back to work buying couture for her boss. A shopping excursion to London via the Eurostar turns into the film’s most nail-biting sequence, a 20-minute long, quite sinister text message exchange in which Maureen is interrogated by some menacing antagonist. The ghost unleashed by her visit to the mansion, or a more corporeal and violent figure? (In a giallo-inspired twist, Personal Shopper throws in a bloody murder and the possibility of an entirely separate, and entirely human, serial killer at work.) As dark forces impinge on Maureen from all sides, something is unlocked in her. In scenes recalling Maggie Cheung’s catsuited hotel corridor prowls in Irma Vep, she fetishistically engages in a series of complex role-plays that become her own way of negotiating grief and avoiding mental collapse.

Elsewhere in this Winter 2017 print edition of Filmmaker, Nicholas Rombes looks for signs in recent independent cinema of the populist, nationalist, authoritarian (you choose!) wave that brought us President Donald Trump. Assayas quickly pushed Personal Shopper into production in 2015 following the last-minute funding collapse of Idol’s Eye, a large-budget, English-language period crime drama that was to be his first American production, and with Rombes’s thesis fresh on the brain, it’s hard not to consider the particular energies of this European copro apart from the Brexit vote, which occurred just five weeks after the film’s premiere in competition at Cannes. She may be American, but Maureen is emblematic of the young, border-crossing cultural workers who, at least in the U.K., now find their futures reshaped by the plebiscite victory of their elders. In this context, Maureen’s IM harasser is the ultimate, digitally invasive troll, an atavistic intruder heralding destabilizing things to come.

 In both her performances and in her choice of roles and directors, Stewart is one of our most compelling young actresses, and her psychologically rich, precisely modulated performance in Personal Shopper contains both an unsettled curiosity and a twitchy intensity. As discussed in our interview, director and star build here upon their previous work together in Clouds of Sils Maria, where Stewart essayed another young person in the orbit of celebrity. Moving from co-star to lead, Stewart makes Maureen’s shut-down emotions and prickly demeanor expressive and sensual, with the actress’s own strong personal taste and knowledge of the fashion world giving her character an immediate authenticity. As for Assayas, there’s no other director today whose shooting and cutting rhythms capture so naturally the specific, ever-changing rhythms of contemporary life, and who so thoroughly, and pleasurably, explores genre for his own deeply personal and inquisitive ends.

I spoke with Assayas and Stewart during the New York Film Festival, where Personal Shopper had its U.S. premiere.

Let me just start by asking you about Personal Shopper in relation to the genre of the ghost story. In films like Demonlover and Boarding Gate, you dip into specific genres, but it always seems like working in these genres is a way to get somewhere else — as if you have another set of concerns beyond the typical ones of those specific genres. ASSAYAS: To me, I kind of paint a canvas, and genre is a color. So if I need red, I use red. I’m not painting the whole canvas red. I think that genre brings physicality into filmmaking, that it connects with the body of the viewer in ways that more “serious filmmaking” does not, or in different ways. I mean, if you want to be in touch with the body of your audience, you use those elements. Alfred Hitchcock was, of course, a master at it.

There are so many traditional themes in ghost movies, which you touch on: grief, guilt and connection with the past, most specifically. But then Personal Shopper presents a whole other set of concerns dealing with communication and the way we interact with each other now — with these new spaces created by mobile communication and text messaging. ASSAYAS: Whatever story you’re telling, you’re telling it in the present tense, not the way it was done five years ago. You’re dealing with contemporary human beings interacting with the contemporary world, which is constantly changing, minute to minute. It’s changing as we’re speaking. In that sense, a lot of what happens in movies or in fiction is not useful — it’s already set in the past in a certain way. So here, we’re dealing with someone who is confronted with some of the most basic emotions we all share: loss, mourning and reconstructing yourself. It happens in all lives, to all of us. And Maureen, she lives — and we live — all of a sudden within a connected world. We are connected to our friends, to our jobs in ways that did not exist. Even when we are trekking in the Himalayas, we are connected to each other. At this very moment, I could Skype with my daughter. 

And the connected world is not just about connection; it’s also about an extension of our own brains, of our own emotions, of our inner feelings. We all have phones, which are like a part of us, hardwired in our brains. So of course, the way we mourn, the way we relate to the invisible, the way we relate to some kind of fantasy world is transformed, is complexified by the way we constantly communicate. It’s a fact of modern life, and it raises a question — if we’re connected with whatever we used to call the supernatural, whatever we used to call the paranormal, all of a sudden [in this connected world] the borders become porous. They become blurred.

STEWART: People often say that our efforts to close that gap through technology actually just distance ourselves from each other because we do a lot of projecting onto our phones. When [communicating by text] works, it’s the most complex language — it’s just so expansive and immediate. But [mobile communication] can distance you from yourself because you’re never fucking alone. There are certain thought processes that are really necessary to have, and you can only have them when you’re by yourself. I’ve noticed this a lot. I like to sit with myself, but I kind of have to make myself do it. Obviously, this is an individual experience for everyone, but for me, I have to guard against the distraction of [mobile phones] because I want to be able to actually sit with thoughts that take a little bit more time to bubble. And this [Stewart holds up her phone] is so immediate. If I can’t write it in a sentence or a slug line, if I can’t write it in a text message, then it’s really not communicable. But also, you’re only interacting with yourself, technically. There is not a person here. [Again Stewart holds up the phone]. Someone could [text you]: “Hey man, how are you?” And you’d be like, “Why is he being so weird with me?” Well, you’ve just made that up, because you’re obviously having strange feelings about him right now. You know what I mean? You’re projecting. It’s weird.

ASSAYAS: To me, it connects with something that has always fascinated me in terms of fiction and narrative, something that also has to do with the limits of cinema, which is our thought processes. We work on different planes simultaneously. Within ourselves, we have, like, three constant conversations going on. Of course, great writers like Proust are all about that. In novels you can include the thought process, you can include the parallel worlds. It’s such an essential part of what I’m writing, and it has always felt to me like a missing dimension of cinema. So, when I’m obsessing about this notion of films capturing the invisible, what I’m trying to say is that eventually, even if we are not aware of it, films do capture the thought process. There is the formulated present conversation, and then there’s also the invisible conversation.

STEWART: And then the internal one, which is also multilayered.

ASSAYAS: Exactly. And in that sense, making a film about the invisible, it’s pretty much trying to make a film where those two things are simultaneously happening. It’s interesting because when I was sitting here listening to Kristen, I was reminded of when Clouds of Sils Maria was shown here two years ago. I was in the middle of that horrible mess with Idol’s Eye, and I was living two parallel lives. I was discussing a movie I had made a year before, I was in the present promoting a film that was showing in the New York Film Festival and I was in the middle of a storm. And those three things are what life is about.

STEWART: And then, at the same time, at the very core of you, you’re thinking about what it was like when you were 10 or something, you know what I mean?

ASSAYAS: Yes, yes!

In so many ghost stories, there’s always that question: “If they are so scared, why don’t they leave the house?” In this movie, the scariest sequence is that long text messaging sequence, and you could say, “Well, why doesn’t Maureen put down the phone?” But as everyone in the audience knows, you can’t. If you know texts are coming in, you compulsively check them. It’s like you still need that dopamine hit of seeing the screen light up with a message. STEWART: I’ve noticed I’ll get a text message, like even a data roaming [alert], and just hearing the sound is like a chemical reaction. I guess my chemical makeup has been affected.

ASSAYAS: It’s about how much [our phones] are physically connected to us, that’s what I’m saying. Something like that hasn’t really happened, at least not in a similar way in the past, in any culture. The very notion of communication has changed. And increasingly we are wired to a phone, which also includes our memory of the past, our relationship to the past. I mean, you [play] a song you listened to when you were eight years old, and all of a sudden, it just surfaces in your brain — 

STEWART: And you know every word.

ASSAYAS: And you know every word.

STEWART: If communication has gotten to this really expansive point, it is interesting that this hasn’t been seen more in movies except in the cheesiest ways. Because there are so many layers to this [topic], you know? Like, our desire to communicate things now that, maybe 100 years ago, were supposed to be internal, and now we’re trying to externalize them.

Was your collaboration any different in terms of process on Personal Shopper than it was in Clouds of Sils Maria? Did you work in any different way? ASSAYAS: We did, because Clouds was so much like a dragon with two heads. It was all about the dynamics between Kristen and Juliette. It was like one character divided in two or something like that.

STEWART: It was pretty unbridled as well.

ASSAYAS: And also, it was lighter. It’s kind of a comedy. And if we’re talking separately of the character of Valentine in Clouds of Sils Maria, she’s kind of a one-dimensional character. She’s kind of no-nonsense, and yeah, we imagine she has a life, that she has a past —

STEWART: — but those are projections.

ASSAYAS: Here, the complexity of the character of Maureen is what takes up all the volume, takes up all the space. She’s multilayered, so it’s exactly the opposite. But I think I understood Kristen from the process of making Clouds of Sils Maria, so I don’t think I’ve discovered in this too many things about her. It was in the process of making Clouds of Sils Maria that I understood how we could work together. And consciously or nonconsciously, I’m not sure, I wrote this film because it’s based on the door I felt was opened.

What do you think that door was? ASSAYAS: Well, I think that door was the more space you give to Kristen, the more she uses it and creates something that’s fascinating.

STEWART: I think I got very, very lucky that the first time we worked together I had somebody like Juliette next to me. She’s really staggering and, for me, hard to understand because I am so different than her. She is very, very much in control of what she’s doing, and conversely, I am splattering myself all over the place. We wind up sometimes in similar places; it’s just a different path to get there.

ASSAYAS: But the thing is, I don’t think that Juliette is that much in control.

STEWART: Maybe she just wants me to think that.

ASSAYAS: No, I mean, she used to be too much and too controlling in what she does. But I think the reality is that she tries a lot of different directions. When it gets to important scenes, it’s all over the place. She kind of covers the whole spectrum.

STEWART: She gives you everything.

ASSAYAS: Yes.

Kristen, I read an interview with you, where you said that when you read this script, you felt you learned something about Olivier that you hadn’t learned or hadn’t known before. ASSAYAS: Yeah, but it’s completely indescribable. I didn’t know him when I read Sils Maria, so I didn’t have a reference. [Now], I know his general, briefly described history. I know where he came from. I’ve met his daughter. I’ve gotten drunk with him and talked about nothing, and there have been moments where things that are really important to me, or some vulnerable shit to express, will come out, and I say it to him. So basically what I’m saying is, he’s my friend, and I do know him as far as you can know somebody. And he’s shy, and so am I, in very different ways. So it wasn’t that I felt like I learned something new. It was just that I was let into a level that was very, very intimate. It was someone revealing a question that they have, a scary question, a very vulnerable question, and, basically, I wanted to just thank him for asking me [this question]. He was like, “I wrote this [script] with you in mind,” and I felt immediately that it was like the dialogue between us [that we had been having] because, if it was impersonal, he wouldn’t have given it to me. So I felt closer, and not because I was enlightened, but because I was engaged [with him] on something that was really difficult. Even living in different countries, I felt immediately closer. I read the script and was like, “Okay, I’ll engage with you on that.” 

ASSAYAS: When I write, I’m not sure I know what I’m writing. I mean, I follow my instinct. Somehow, I think she understood when she read it, maybe a bit more, how there was something scary going on in this screenplay in terms of how I exposed myself. I think if I had been that aware of it, I would not have made it, or I would have made it possibly in a different way.

STEWART: The script scared the shit out of me, because most fears that you have, the reason you’re freaking out is because you’re like, “Wait, I’m going to fix this [problem]. There has to be a resolution to this.” And this just had a creeping, ever-present… not fear, the movie is not fearful. It had this creeping, ever-present, nagging reminder that you’re never going to resolve that. And the persistency of that is so scary, you know what I mean? And not in a bad way. You and I know that we distract ourselves every day and kind of forget these things, but when we lay down at night, it all comes back, every night. You kind of die every night, and then you have to wake up and contend with consciousness once a day. You have to construct your default mindset in order to go on, and kind of put the other one away. [Maureen], she’s never able to put it away. And I’ve been there, you know? And it was scary, but not for ghost reasons.

Your character is something of a savant, in terms of being able to see people and immediately, in her role as a personal shopper, figure out what they should wear. But there must be a very complicated rationale behind this appraisal, because it’s not just about selecting clothes to make the person look good. The clothes she selects say something about psychology, about status, about culture, about that person’s aspirations. And that ability seems to be central to this character of Maureen. She’s able to understand all these different layers. To what extent did you impart your own knowledge of the fashion world, of clothing, into this character? Or, to put it another way, how did you view Maureen as a character given your own thoughts on fashion? STEWART: Nobody knows anything. There’s no right answer to any of those questions [of style]. But the satisfaction of having good taste, of being the authority, of the power in that — I am totally guilty of it. “That looks fucking good.” “Yeah, for sure, that’s the right thing.”

Guilty in terms of enjoying having that power over other people? To friends? Or just to yourself? STEWART:Well, just to myself. [As we talk, Stewart looks up at a row of actor portraits lining the walls of the green room at Lincoln Center.] I pass judgment on every single outfit that these guys are wearing on the walls. I’ve looked at all of them the whole time we’re sitting here. And I think I’m right [about my opinions]. And that is addictive [for Maureen] — especially because she’s so out of control. She’s utterly, utterly out of control, and the one thing that she can control and dominate with is taste.

ASSAYAS: It’s a bit like directing or writing — it kind of rubs off on you. That’s what Maureen does. In her own way, she kind of directs.

She creates narratives. ASSAYAS: She’s creating something, and she’s not immune to whatever goes on in the world she’s creating.

I really enjoyed watching the facility, the speed, with which you do your work in the film. STEWART: Like when she goes, “Yeah, good, good, no. Yeah, oh, you should take that. Yeah”?

Yes, exactly. Often in films you’ll see someone doing something occupational, some form of work, and you think, “This actor has no idea what they’re doing.” But when you see the actor in a process that feels real, you instantly recognize it, and that’s what I felt watching those scenes. STEWART: It’s weird because I’m very much like Maureen. I recognize that certain people prevalent in the fashion industry are just attention-seeking, insecure people who have no emotional taste. [Their taste] lives or dies on perception, rather than their own personal perception of it. And I don’t have that. Some people have opinions, some people don’t, and I have my own take. What is ugly is when people falsely represent that they have opinions just for status purposes. I hate that, and [Maureen] fucking hates that. Also, I’m self-conscious about the fact that I think I have a valid opinion, and she is also. There’s, like, self-hate going on there, too. Maybe it’s not worth that.

ASSAYAS: But again, it’s so much about directing. When you direct, you keep on making decisions.

STEWART: Little choices.

ASSAYAS: And you don’t base them on your thought process. You have to decide instantly based on your gut instinct. It’s about trusting your instinct, which is also the way we relate to any form of art. You say, “This is right, and this is wrong” because your instinct tells you so. You would have eventually a hard time rationalizing it, or you don’t have time, or it’s boring to rationalize it. So, you trust your intuition.

STEWART: [Olivier and I] talk about instinct in really similar ways. I rarely go back and don’t see the narrative of my instinct. That doesn’t mean I was articulating it then; I was just making something. But then, after the fact, in interviews, you go, “Oh. It all lined up and said something that had that period on the end of it, and it was cohesive.” I’ve been pretty rarely confused by my instincts. The worst thing a person can do to you is take your instinct from you. When I’m around those [kind of] people, and I know that what we’re doing is confused, it’s a bad feeling. But when there’s an unencumbered expression happening, it always lines up afterwards. You look back at it and you go, “That really makes sense. It has a narrative.”

Does that happen with some directors more than others? STEWART: Of course. You don’t always vibe [with a particular director]. Then I just tune them out and focus on an actor. Everyone’s directing the movie, and, at the end of the day, [the director is] the person holding it, but we’re all holding a piece of it. So, I’ll like another actor and just be like, “okay.” I’m kind of a cypher, and I’m really sensitive [to a bad environment], and so I have to be aware of that and defocus my eyes on something that’s affecting me badly.

ASSAYAS: It’s so much about the conversation we are having right now. What Kristen is saying is that we do movies based on our instinct because there’s no time to reflect. There’s no time to analyze. I mean, it’s the fog of war. And looking back on it, you realize that whatever you have been doing has had a meaning, and that’s what’s interesting about discussing the movies that way. It’s the pleasure we can have, discussing movies, just trying to make sense of what we’ve done. And ultimately, there is a pattern. There is a meaning. We let it grow out of the process.

STEWART: If you don’t do it that way, then we would just be in different mediums. We’d be analytical writers, which Olivier has done. I truly believe that art moves through you. And the only way to allow it to really find itself is to give yourself to it. And that often doesn’t leave time for analysis.

Olivier, you mentioned earlier the movie you were making, Idol’s Eye. When I saw you in Toronto, you mentioned that it might go back up again. How are you making it this time to avoid the problems you had a couple of years ago? ASSAYAS: I don’t care about controlling a film, but at least I need someone I trust controlling it, and that means bringing [producer] Charles Gillibert back in the right position. When we were preparing Idol’s Eye, the problem was that we were dealing with people who wanted to take any kind of control from Charles, and then when Charles loses control, I am losing control. That’s ultimately, the bottom line, although it’s a much more complex story than that. It was also a learning process for me. I didn’t realize how different the logic of filmmaking is between Europe and the U.S.

STEWART: This is the entertainment industry. That’s the difference.

ASSAYAS: Yes. And, issues of control and power are essential, and that bores me to no end. I’m not into that.

STEWART: It’s so bureaucratic. It’s so crazy.

ASSAYAS: It’s not what I like about filmmaking.

STEWART: You can be a little warrior on the inside of that if you have to, but you don’t have to, so don’t, you know? 

ASSAYAS: Of course you can be, but the thing is, that’s not something that brings out the best from me. I can be into the power of things, like the other guy, but I’m not interested because I know that’s not how I make my art. I need to feel I’m making movies with friends. I need trust, basically. And I could go on about this until tomorrow, but you know, I also think that American filmmaking is a byproduct of making contracts.

STEWART: Totally.

ASSAYAS: Lawyers spend a year making contracts, and I think it’s demented. And I think the movie ends up happening as a byproduct of the process of making the contract. And those absurd contracts are, like, 100 pages, and they are all about mistrust. Everything has to be codified because people just don’t trust each other. What happens if you’re a crook? What happens if you fuck up? It’s not how movies should be made.

STEWART: Here is one thing that [Olivier] does on set. He’s very quiet and steadfast or whatever, but only occasionally, like maybe three or four times on a movie, there will be a question or something gets confused, and he’s like, “No, no, this is absolutely the only answer!” Just like that, it gets to a point, and he goes, “In fact, in fact, that’s just a fact!” And then, done! We got it.

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