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Olivier Assayas talks about Personal Shopper, working with Kristen Stewart and more

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Director Olivier Assayas came of age in Paris ’68—a fact that has influenced many of his films. Through the 1980s he worked for Cahiers du Cinema as a film critic while making his own start as a filmmaker–he calls that early exposure to the art of cinema his film school. More than any other French filmmaker, he sees film as an international language, as exemplified by the way his film Carlos (about “Carlos the Jackal”) accurately represented its multilingual subject.

His latest production is Personal Shopper (you can read our review here), which stars Kristin Stewart as someone who shops for people too famous to shop for themselves (Stewart also worked with Assayas in his previous film, Clouds of Sils Maria.) It’s set in the world of high fashion in Paris, but it also deals with high technology, stalking and grief. It has divided critics—while he won best director at Cannes and Stewart gives a fine performance, there are some tonal shifts that are a bit jarring.

The treatment of the supernatural element in the film made me think of Val Lewton. Did he influence you at all?

I admire the movies, I do, and they certainly belong to a long tradition in filmmaking that I am very sensitive to, you know, for leaving some kind of poetic mark on filmmaking. But I don’t know, it’s movies I love, [but] how much they can be an inspiration for a movie, I’m not sure. What I was interested in was trying to connect everyday life in the material world with a sense of the afterlife, or  a sense of the possibility of communication with another world. But I needed to have a very grounded notion of everyday life to be able to show that there are doors.

What has been your biggest challenge with the making of multilingual international productions?

I suppose it must have been Carlos, because when I was shooting Carlos there are like nine languages in the film that I don’t understand and don’t speak. You learn a lot about working with actors, trusting actors. You end up having to trust your musical ear rather than your understanding, because if it sounds right in terms of musicality, there’s a good chance it’s good in terms of acting and meaning. But still it’s challenging, it’s pretty challenging. But it was a very interesting area to experiment, in the sense that few movies use the diversity of language whereas that’s the reality of the world. That’s the reality of the world of Carlos:  Carlos functioned in three or four languages non-stop, and that kind of defined him. And strangely it’s something that the fact the film was financed by a TV channel allowed, because they did not care. That’s the most interesting part of the history of it.

What do you think about the whole TV versus film thing at the moment?

I don’t think there really is TV versus film, but I’m not the best person to discuss it, because I don’t watch series. Not because I would not like them, I’m sure I would like them, but it’s just that I have no time, it just doesn’t fit my way of life. I don’t like to sit in front of a TV set and watch like hours, it’s not my way of functioning. And I’m not so fond of the addictive side of it, I’m extremely cautious. When I sense that something I too addictive, I kind of stay away from it. But I don’t have a second of doubt that sometimes when you have long forms, when all of a sudden you have hours and hours, you can develop characters, you can create very rich textures. It possibly gives you something that’s similar to novels, in the sense that that you have a lot of space to add layers to your characters. Whereas movies are more poetic. What I love about the cinema is its speed, its energy, the way it’s very compact, the way poetry can be compact.

What was your biggest misconception from when you met Kristin Stewart on the first film? What have you found out from working with her?

It’s not so much about misconceptions, I just did not know her. I liked her, I liked her a lot—I liked everything I had seen of her. I thought she had a very unique screen presence, she magnetises the camera. So that I was very conscious of, and I was right. But then in terms of her acting, her intelligence, the nuances of filmmaking, I did not expect anything like that. I also didn’t realise how half her work relies so much on body language. She has a way of using the body in a shot that is amazing, she’s like a dancer, or an animal or something. There is something incredibly graceful about her, and precise and clever, about the way she uses her body.

Do you think it’s because of being a child actress, when they reach that point where they are adults and doing good work, that they become quite good because they’ve had all that training?

I think they build an instinct. It becomes so natural to them that they have this incredible awareness of what is essential in the process of filmmaking. I have noticed that of course with other actors who started as children, they don’t have technique, they have instinct. What I’m saying is that technique and instinct have become one and the same thing.

You prominently use mobile phones in the film. What are your thoughts on technology in the world that we live in?

I have no thought or opinion, it’s just a fact of life. It’s a very both fascinating and disturbing factor of the modern transformation of humanity. It’s… I think the way we relate to our phones, the way we relate to the nation of communicating, the way we use social media—I don’t but most people do –is changing our perception of ourselves, our perception of the world, and is certainly changing the limits, the borders of our perception of the world. I think the depth of the change, the complexity of the change and where it’s taking us, is staggering. As a filmmaker, I can only document it and witness it, and eventually using it as an element in the narrative language of the film.

How did you background as a film critic inform your filmmaking?

You know, it’s… well, it did, but I’ve never seen myself as a film critic. I was a kid who wanted to make films and who was lucky enough to publish his own rambling on the subject. I was a writer for a film magazine for five years, between 1980 and 1985, quite a while ago. All the while, I was writing screenplays, I was writing short films, I was directing short films. So even at that time it was like back and forth—practice and theory,  theory and practice. if you ask me, it was like film school. I felt very privileged. Instead of sitting in a schoolroom, I was interviewing filmmakers I admired, I was part of the editorial board of a very prestigious film magazine, I had conversations with the most interesting film writers in France at that time. I travelled to film festivals where I saw international movies where I would have had no access in France. I travelled—I travelled to China, I travelled to Los Angeles—you know, it expanded my world, it expanded my awareness of the history of cinema and the history of contemporary cinema.

And also it made me conscious of the fact that theory was actually useful. Now, people despise theory—I think they’re wrong. I think theory, as long as it’s not frozen in time, as long as it’s in the present, is very important because it helps filmmakers who practice it and writers to understand how the media is changing, where it’s heading. It’s basically about understanding what you do. So I think I’ve been very concerned to understand what I was doing in cinema ever since. So yes, that’s certainly one layer of filmmaking that is important in my work.

Do you yourself believe in ghosts?

I think we all believe in ghosts. It depends, we mean different things. But do I feel like I have some form of communications with the departed? Well, maybe I have a one-sided dialogue, I keep on having that dialogue but nothing comes back to me. But there are friends  I have lost, or my parents, whatever, they are constantly present with me. I think that what we call ‘ghosts’ is a way of externalising things that are happening within ourselves, that are like distortions of our perception. So in a sense we all have some kind of relationship with that.

That takes me into my next questions. Obviously she has a twin, that’s the ghosts—and a twin is like having a ghost, when they’re gone, they feel like they have lost half themselves. So, what’s your favourite twin film?

I’m not sure—has to be Dead Ringers I suppose. I was a big fan at the time.

And finally, have you been able to catch anything at the festival?

No nothing, it‘s really frustrating! I’ve been going from one festival to the next  festival for the last two weeks and I haven’t seen one film, it basically drives me nuts. Any movie I want to see, I know  I won’t see it until next year or something.

Has there been anything recently that you’ve liked?

I haven’t seen much, to tell the truth. In fact, what surprised me, everybody seems to love the film and I also liked Toni Erdmann a lot.

You can find me over at PsychotronicCinema.

Personal Shopper by Tula Lotay. 16″x24″ screen print. Hand numbered. Edition of 125. Printed by D&L Screenprinting. $40.

Poster via Mondo.

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