The ever versatile Olivier Assayas returns to genre territory with strange and mysterious ghost story Personal Shopper, which centres on a knockout performance from Kristen Stewart. When we meet the French filmmaker, he has nothing but praise for his star.
Ask any director the aspect of filmmaking they enjoy least, and 99 times out of 100 they’ll tell you it’s talking to the press. And who could blame them? Having to hear those same unoriginal questions over and over again. “Where did you get the initial idea?” “Who are your influences?” and then of course the obligatory topical question, which for the next four years will be: “What do you think of Trump?” French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, however, is part of the elusive one percent.
“It’s always interesting to discuss your own films because somehow you are reinventing them by talking about them,” Assayas says when we sit down to chat at a London hotel. He explains that while in director mode, he doesn’t have the opportunity to verbalise to his cast and crew his intentions for the film. “I’m not a very theoretical person when I’m on the set, I’m just all about action; I think that’s how movies get made. There I’m making decision after decision after decision every day, and once the film is finished, it’s then that you can try to understand why you made those decisions and understand, basically, what was the subconscious drive to it all.”
This is music to our ears, as we’re here to discuss Personal Shopper, a beguiling and unclassifiable film full of mysteries and nuances. It centres on a dissatisfied young American woman called Maureen, played by Kristen Stewart – who became the first American actor to win a César Award (basically the French Oscars) for her performance in Assayas’ previous film Clouds of Sils Maria. By day our hero works as personal shopper and general dogsbody for a bitchy supermodel who’s based in Paris. Maureen’s side gig, however, is far more interesting.
She's a medium, and the film opens with her on the job, but it’s one to which she has a personal connection. Maureen’s been commissioned to check out the dark and creaky villa her twin brother Lewis’s girlfriend inherited to see if any unwanted spirits linger there. It turns out, however, that Maureen has her fingers crossed it is haunted, as she’s eager to speak to one spirit in particular: Lewis, who died in the house of a weak heart (a defect his sister shares) a few months back.
Personal Shopper Maureen insists she must spend a night alone in the house to check it out, and as expected, things do go bump in the dark: a ghostly apparition appears, but it’s benevolent. Lewis, however, does not make his presence known. “It’s difficult to find a portal into the spirit world,” Maureen shrugs, “That’s just the way it is.”
While this description might be conjuring up ideas in your mind of a hipster Conjuring, Assayas, as he often does, has wrong footed us. The rest of his ghost story won’t take place in the usual spaces of haunted attics, creepy basements or spooky cemeteries, but very much in the modern world of boutique hotels, penthouse apartments and, in one of the film's most thrilling setpieces, the Eurostar. And instead of communicating via ectoplasm stains or creaking door hinges, the ghosts in Personal Shopper use iPhone text messages.
What makes the film so unusual and compelling is this tension between the real and the supernatural. “I really wanted a character who is anchored, who is grounded, and who’s very human,” explains Assayas. “That’s what Kristen brought to me. She has this screen presence, she's this really solid person. It really matters that we relate to that character, because she opens those doors into the unknown.”
Much of the joy of Personal Shopper is the opportunity to observe Stewart at her most stripped back, her most raw. She dominates the film, but in an understated way. It’s a performance that feels very alive, full of subtle gestures and tiny character details. It’s a very quiet performance too, with none of the histrionics that characterised the role that made her famous in the Twilight franchise. Like all great actors, her charisma pulls you closer to the screen, like a magnet.
“When I was writing [Personal Shopper] I didn't know I was actually writing for Kristen,” explains Assayas, “but I think if I had not made Clouds of Sils Maria with Kristen, had not spent time with her, then I would not have created a character similar to Maureen. And when I finished writing and I ended up giving Kristen the screenplay she read it and loved it, and all of a sudden there was an inner logic to it all.”
As is the case with many critics, it took Assayas a while to realise just how talented Stewart is. His first experience of her was in Walter Salles’ On the Road. “I liked what I saw on screen,” he recalls, “but I never saw something that I thought was completely accomplished.” It wasn’t until working with her on Clouds of Sils Maria that he realised how good she really is. “She was something else, she was unique. She really has this extraordinary mix of intuition. She’s completely, incredibly natural. She’ll never do the same thing twice. She needs to feel things and simultaneously she has so much control over what she does.”
Assayas was so impressed, in fact, that he felt his material had let her down. “I was a bit frustrated because the character I wrote for her in Clouds of Sils Maria was one dimensional,” he laments. “She didn’t have a lot of space to create a character. I was extremely happy with what we did together, but it was a bit frustrating because I felt that we could have gone much further. She’s a very smart actress, and I think that she has an unlimited range that needs to be challenged.”
With Personal Shopper, they’ve done exactly that. What so impresses is that most of the film plays out focused on Stewart's character on her own in medium shot, dashing through the Paris streets on errands or simply reacting to the latest – possibly supernatural – text on her phone. So compelling is her performance, however, that you never want to take your eyes off the screen, even when she’s seemingly doing nothing. Assayas thinks, as an actor, she’s innately cinematic: “She moves within the frame like a dancer, you know? She has a way of playing with her body and with the camera, and she has this understanding of the space. For a filmmaker that’s pretty unique.”
Perhaps what’s so exciting for film fans is that Assayas reckons Stewart has only just scratched the surface of her talents. “After two movies, I feel that I don’t know her yet,” he says. “I get the sense there’s more space there. I think it’s the first time that it’s happened to me with an actor that I’m not sure where their limit is.”
This sounds like the start of a beautiful director-actor partnership.