In a three-decade career that has ranged from an autobiographical reverie of youthful rebellion (Cold Water) to a delirious neo-noir (Demonlover) to a historical crime saga (Carlos), French filmmaker Olivier Assayas has channeled his gift for crafting intimate character studies through an impressive array of genres. His delight in juggling various styles, which reflects the period he spent in his mid-to-late twenties exploring his cinephilic obsessions as a critic at Cahiers du cinéma, extends to his Cannes award–winning latest feature, Personal Shopper, a supernatural thriller that tells the story of a young American fashion assistant in Paris who seeks to get in touch with the afterlife after the passing of her twin brother. Starring Kristen Stewart, whose performance in Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria made her the first American actor to win a César Award, this melancholy portrait of loss combines the director’s psychological acuity with the spooky chills of a ghost story.
With Personal Shopper now in theaters, we’re sharing a conversation we had with Assayas during his visit to the Criterion office last October, shortly before the film’s premiere at the New York Film Festival.
Seeing Personal Shopper and Irma Vep (1994) in close succession at the Toronto Film Festival made me curious about how conscious you are of your past work when creating something new.
I’m really interested in this dialogue between my movies. It’s important for me to have a notion of how my movies echo one another. I’ve been lucky to write all my films and more or less make movies with the same freedom of a novelist writing his novels. Every single movie I’ve made is like a part of this one movie, which includes the present, the past, the future—mapping the world in its own way. What excites me when I’m making a film is that it covers ground I have not covered before. It’s part of the same energy, but I’ve moved the stage somewhere else.
How did you approach the supernatural elements in Personal Shopper?
I wanted to take the subject seriously. I didn’t want to make it a genre element or something weird or far-fetched. I wanted to make it feel like part of everyday life, to set the film in a world where people do believe in the existence of ghosts, where no one questions it. And for so many people it’s not a strange thing. We all have our ghosts; it’s not a matter of belief. We live with our own ghosts, and we live with our imaginations, our fears and anxieties, and what we call ghosts are a mixture of the departed and how they connect with our own inner world.
To me, “ghosts” is a code word. We know there’s much more to reality than what is actually visible, and that’s proven by science—it’s not some kind of weird fantasy. So we certainly have some relationship to forces that we don’t completely comprehend.
“Kristen has this unique way of inhabiting the screen, of using her body within the shot. She has this extraordinary way of blending into the shots like a dancer, even if it doesn’t look like dancing.”
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