The French filmmaker on his Personal Shopper collaboration with Kristen Stewart and what he hates about contemporary film criticism.
Amidst all the press for Personal Shopper, I think we’ve finally cracked the case of What Makes Kristen Stewart So Good ‐ she’s a director in an actor’s agile body. This works marvelously well when paired with French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, because he began as a film writer who’d studied literature and art ‐ making him a curious scholar in a director’s competent frame.
Assayas often speaks of the collaborative chemistry between himself and Stewart, and it’s easy to note the pair’s similarities. To begin with, Stewart is 26 and Assayas 62, a numerical palindrome. During our interview, Assayas writhed enthusiastically in his chair, combing the room with his eyes, restless though never disinterested (or so he led me to believe). Spit flew from his mouth when he spoke. He never once let me finish a question before beginning to answer (as though he could intuit where I was going, and wanted to get on with things). Both he and Stewart have a habit of sputtering out partial sentences, apparently searching for an earnest thought in place of a careful, promotional one. And they’re cool ‐ I’ve seen Assayas rightly described as “hawkish” and “slippery,” and Stewart as “understated” and “beguiling.” They are casual but intense, loose while cerebral. They defy conventions set in place for actor and director, blending roles and mixing genres and creating together, as equals.
Like its director-actor team, Personal Shopper cannot fit inside any genre box. It is simultaneously a gothic ghost story, a murder mystery, and an eerie meditation on the isolation of grief. Stewart plays Maureen, an American in Paris who works as personal shopper for some elusive, demanding celebrity. Maureen lingers at this shitty job after losing her twin brother Lewis to a heart defect (a defect she shares); both siblings are mediums, able to commune with the departed, and Maureen hopes her brother will send a signal from beyond the grave. She assumes his presence still haunts Paris, so she’ll be likelier to find him there. Unfortunately, Maureen’s talents summon a much nastier spook than intended, and she begins receiving strange iPhone messages. Are these texts from Lewis, or is a more sinister force at digital work?
At the Cannes premiere in May, Personal Shopper was booed ‐ perhaps for being so maddeningly elliptical. Viewers were also driven nuts by Valentine’s sudden disappearance in Assayas’ 2014 hit Clouds of Sils Maria (Stewart played Val). But Assayas assured me anything having to do with “genre filmmaking” doesn’t perform well at Cannes. He isn’t concerned with audience distress over ambiguity, either. “I’ve become bored with the process of writing screenplays,” he said. “I think recently I’ve been experimenting. There’s so much filmmaking that’s so conventional ‐ so many boring rules about how to tell a story. I don’t want to deal with that, it’s no fun. I’m trying to move from one interesting moment to another without dealing with interconnections. I’ve been calling this film a “collage.” In terms of how movies end, the problem is not how they end ‐ it’s how they echo. I need the viewers to get out of the theater still processing the film. The more questions they have, the more the film, to my view, is successful.”
In Personal Shopper, Stewart is on her own. The role requires the actress to be on-screen for nearly every perilous second; her undereye circles pronounced, hands trembly, dark hair slicked back. With no co-stars of significance, Stewart is stranded, just as Maureen is adrift in misery, that most solitary of feelings. In her personal life, Stewart is pretty ghostly too ‐ at least when it comes to public and press. She has no Twitter handle, posts no Instagram selfies, and plays coy about who she’s dating. Despite her lack of digital imprint and insistence upon privacy, she remains in high demand. Stewart’s fans are notoriously rabid ‐ legend stipulates that if you post a tweet with her name in it, they’ll find and retweet you within the hour. I suspect her withholding nature makes people crave details all the more. One of the PS publicists told me she hoped the rash of headlines about Stewart’s recently shaven head would benefit the film’s coinciding release.
Assayas didn’t “discover” Stewart, who has been acting since childhood ‐ but he certainly aided her career mutation from tween-franchise mega-star to respected indie darling. Stewart became the first American to ever win France’s César Award (an Oscar equivalency) for Clouds of Sils Maria. When someone can steal the show from Juliette Binoche, you take note. There is something magical about Stewart’s appearance in Assayas’ two films; he frames her in doorways and aboard rickety trains, lets her chain smoke in grungy clothes, and though she fairly cowers beneath your gaze, slinking through literal and figurative shadows on the outskirts of scenes, you can’t take your eyes off her. Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey compared Stewart to a cat that waits ‐ not asking for attention, but knowing you’ll come around to stroking her eventually. Kelly Reichardt, who directed Stewart in Certain Women (2016), has praised her technical skill: “She sort of knows when to throw a glance, and when she doesn’t even have dialogue, it’s almost like she might be anticipating where a cut might go, and she’s giving you a movement to cut on,” Reichardt told NYLON.
I asked Assayas what he gives Stewart that other directors don’t. “I give her space and time,” he said. “The logic of European filmmaking is much more adapted to the talent of Kristen. What I brought to her when we were doing Sils Maria ‐ I hardly realized it at the time ‐ the message was that it’s OK to be yourself in a film. You don’t have to invent. It’s not about acting, it’s about being yourself.”
Accusations of “no range” have been hurled at Stewart for years; she selects characters with experiences and mannerisms wholly similar to her own. Does that count as “acting”? When Stewart speaks about her roles, you can tell she’s also referring to herself. She doesn’t try to pretend otherwise. This is what Assayas seems to relish. “What’s really great about Kristen is she needs to believe in the reality of what’s going on,” he said. “She has to be 100 percent like real life. She goes through those emotions. So when I say I give her space ‐ I give her space to build up the emotion to the point where she feels it’s completely genuine. Sometimes it takes 10 seconds, sometimes it takes three minutes, and I’m fine with that. There are some pretty long scenes in the film that were a few lines in the screenplay. I think she’s really creating that character.” This might sound “method” at first blush, but as Stewart told Wonderland last year, “I can’t be one of those method actors who totally ‘lose it’ and don’t know where the camera is. I always know where that fucking thing is.”
Generously, Assayas has long referred to his actors as “co-directors.” His collaborative efforts with Stewart on PS were far more pronounced than on Sils Maria. “I didn’t realize when I was writing or preparing the film how tough it would be on her, because of what it deals with,” he said. “She was much more lucid than I was. When we first discussed the film, I said, ‘Let’s do it right away.’ We were talking about the spring. And she said ‘No, I’d prefer to do it in the fall.’ And I said, ‘But why? Let’s do it!’ She was supposed to do the Woody Allen film in the summer. I thought we had plenty of time and I was like, ‘What the fuck is she saying?’ But once we got going and started making the film, I realized that no way after Personal Shopper could she move on and do Allen’s film. She was right! I should have trusted her.” Plenty of directors have actor muses or repeat co-workers ‐ but few give their actors so much influence over a project, let alone share the credit.
Not all actors want to co-direct. Some have small interest in the kind of improvisation Assayas enjoys; like Jean-Pierre Léaud, whom Assayas says will work so determinedly on a screenplay, you can’t even change a line on set or all hell breaks loose. (They’ve worked together twice, and Assayas calls him “amazing.” Every actor demands a varying technique.) “I don’t direct actors,” he clarified. “I work with actors. It’s a completely different thing.”
Like a few humble French filmmakers before him (Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer) Assayas used to write for Cahiers du Cinéma. In the ’80s he did some criticism, more essays, and conducted interviews with directors he admired. Since he never went to film school, Assayas learned filmmaking history and practice through journalistic methods. But don’t get him started on the state of film criticism today. He’s famously expressed disgust with the “rating” system, awarding films with stars. “It’s always been one dimension of film criticism, but now it’s kind of taken over,” he said. “There’s too much of it. It freaks me out when I see stars… it’s so the opposite of however I imagine the relationship of anybody to a film. It’s like you’re in a museum and you look at a painting, and you start giving it points. It’s ridiculous. There have always been two trends in film criticism: one aimed at the audience, meaning I’m writing, ‘This movie is good for you, you will enjoy it.’ That’s completely legitimate, like food criticism. Then you have more serious or relevant forms, where ultimately it was about having a dialogue with the filmmaker, giving him an opinion on where he stands in terms of the evolution of the medium, what’s going on in the film culture. I suppose I’m more sensitive to it in the context of French film criticism, because that dimension was vital ‐ and now, not so much. Now in France you have a third form of film criticism, which is film critics writing for film critics.” I promised him we have critic-for-critic writing in America, too; you’ll notice it in the form of listicles or rankings that dictate a director’s best, second best, and worst film. Who cares? Only other film critics, usually because they want to argue with your grading. “Exactly,” he replied.
Film criticism might run on a parallel track between France and the U.S., but Assayas can’t say the same of film production. We spoke about his struggles with “pitching” a movie to studio execs. “I’m dreadful at it,” he said shamelessly. “I don’t know how to do it, and I get away with that in the European system. I hate it, it’s a fool’s game, everybody knows that’s not the film. The reality is when I approach a film, I’m not sure where I’m heading. That’s what exciting. Pitching a project is like pitching wherever the screenplay is at, and to me that’s just the starting point. I hope to go much further than that. But I’m not exactly sure where. The kind of conversation I can have with anybody financing a film is, ‘I’ll do my best to make a great film.’”
So it’s easier for Assayas to sell and produce films in Europe ‐ what’s the difference overseas? “The status of a director,” he said. “It’s not as simple as that, but at least in the European system, you’re recognized as an artist. They listen to what you have to say. They know if you’ve been making interesting films before, there’s a chance that in the future you also will be, and eventually you’ll make some money. There’s a certain trust in the idea of filmmaker as auteur. Here [the U.S.] you’re an employee. Even if they love your work. They think they know better than you. Ultimately, they’ll package the film and you’ll come in and direct it. It’s a much more corporate and industrial way of making movies. It hasn’t been around that long… I was watching again some Robert Altman movies from the ’70s. How could he get away with that in the studio system? Those were studio movies! They are so fresh, you can watch them again now and they’re lively, luminous, exciting. You just feel the freedom in those movies. They were invented on the set.”
On every talk show Stewart appears to promote Personal Shopper, she’s asked about her belief in ghosts. Assayas gets the same treatment in press junkets. A trite, annoying query to wrest from the film ‐ still, I couldn’t help but ask a comparable question about whether he’s spoken to any mediums or psychics. “I’ve always been interested in those things, but I think what’s happening inside myself is complex enough,” Assayas said wisely. If you seek out Stewart’s answers, you’ll hear more of the same; she won’t talk about the likes of Casper the Friendly, but she’ll muse about other invisible things, like the energy between human beings. “I feel people, fucking intrinsically,” she said at NYFF. (There’s an implied comma between ‘people’ and ‘fucking,’ just for the record).
If mediums do exist, Assayas and Stewart qualify ‐ but instead of spirits, they communicate intuitively with each other. Both seem vastly more concerned with connecting to cinema audiences in this fleshy realm than in contemplating the unknowable afterlife.