Assayas’ spectres and technology exhume buried truths

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Personal Shopper
RPL Film Theatre
April 27–30

French filmmaker Olivier Assayas is not an easy man to pigeonhole. He is responsible for the Carlos “The Jackal” biopic, the hermetic Summer Hours, the fascinating Clouds of Sils Maria and the positively insane Demonlover (just your average 3-D manga porn intrigue).

This is a guy who, of all the actresses in the world, picks a teen idol as his muse and turns her into a consummate thespian.

Assayas is back with another oddity: a ghost story misleadingly titled Personal Shopper that he shot in Paris just before terrorist attacks changed the city. Twilight’s Kristen Stewart is Maureen, a freelance medium and as assistant for a fashion model. Maureen struggles to achieve normalcy following the death of her twin brother: The siblings had a pact; when one of them died, they would visit the survivor and tell them about the other side.

Despite indications her sibling is trying to honour the agreement, Maureen keeps waiting for a clearer sign (in all fairness, other presences may be interfering). She seems to be stalling and using the covenant as an excuse not to move forward with her life.

Unwittingly, Maureen becomes involved in a crime and her already-complicated existence spins out of control.

The first time I saw Personal Shopper, I didn’t care for it. The script introduces a number of plotlines the film doesn’t bother to tie up. Ambiguity and uncertainty are the predominant forces, and frustration is a likely outcome. The second time around the story doesn’t matter as much as Maureen’s emotional journey, and it’s a riveting one. Don’t over-think this film. Let it wash over you. You’ll enjoy it more.

Olivier Assayas is fully aware his movies are polarizing, but it doesn’t bother him. I had the chance to talk to him last Toronto Film Festival.

Why a twin?

Maureen could have been mourning a boyfriend, a girlfriend, there were many options. But I needed someone who had lost half of herself and needed to become whole again.

Like in Clouds of Sils Maria, Kristen Stewart plays someone who serves at the leisure of the rich and famous. Where does this interest in personal assistants comes from?

These last two movies I have done are my way to reconnect with the modern world. The two before that — Carlos and Something in the Air — were period pieces. Personal Shopper is more grounded, and in many ways was inspired by Kristen. She is incredibly simple, natural and easygoing, as opposed to most movie stars. Kristen has this media persona that’s usually in the tabloids and looks like a nutcase, but I see her as an everyday person. I like the idea of representing someone who has a healthy perspective on celebrity culture.

Are you attracted to the horror genre?

Personal Shopper has genre elements, but I wouldn’t call it a horror film. I do like them, they fascinate me. Horror movies communicate with the body of the viewer, as opposed to their brains or their emotions. They also deal with the subconscious, our fears, something very intimate. If I had to pinpoint directors who had the most influence on me, a lot of them would be genre filmmakers: Carpenter, Cronenberg, Argento.

You are a fundamentally naturalistic filmmaker. How much of a challenge was it to create a ghost that’s anchored in reality?

Initially, I didn’t want to show the ghost. I was dragged into it because ultimately the audience would want to see it. My inspiration was spiritualist photography of the late 19th century. I thought it was important to reconnect with a moment when people believe it was for real. Looking at these photos today, you can’t understand how people could have taken them seriously — but at the same time, they are genuinely scary.

You incorporate contemporary elements like texting and skyping. Are you concerned that in the future the film may look dated because of them?

The past does not vanish. We live in a present defined by the past: we aren’t just the person we are at this moment, but also the person we were 10, 15 years ago. Texting, specifically, is very powerful form of communication: text messages are very compact and supercharged. We have to express complex feelings in short sentences. Because words are not as diluted as in conversation, they end up hitting nerves.

Your films allow a considerable degree of personal interpretation. Is there any perception of your work that bothers you?

Every viewer has their own inner world and will watch the film in a different way. Regarding those who dislike my movies, I say “fair enough”: in life you don’t connect with everybody at the same time. Whatever they see in my films, it has to be there. I’m not aware of it, but I can’t tell them they are wrong. ❧

True to form, Olivier Assayas’ next movie stars Sylvester Stallone and Stewart’s ex-boyfriend, Robert Pattinson. Business as usual for him.