Kristen Stewart and Olivier Assayas, who worked together on Clouds of Sils Maria in 2014, have reunited to film the psychological thriller Personal Shopper, which was screened at the New York Film Festival.
Stewart plays a fashion assistant who mourns the death of her twin brother and longs to communicate with him, but she gets more than she bargained for when someone or something begins to haunt her. At a panel after the screening, Stewart and Assayas discussed their ideas of spiritualism, their filmmaking dynamic, genre exploration, and the film’s use of sound.
The film deeply explores the concepts of ghosts and spirits and how they relate to one’s own spirituality. For Assayas, the spiritual takes the form of the subconscious. He states that “ghosts, the invisible, the paranormal, [and] the supernatural” are “all words we use to express what’s happening inside of us, not exactly outside of us.” He explains that the existence of these internal ghosts are “how our imaginations can be distorted, or how we can have disturbing thoughts, or how once in awhile our own subconscious is telling us things that we have a hard time understanding.” Assayas sees the paranormal as a very universal experience; it is “the way we interact with things that are beyond our understanding,” and it is “everyone’s experience of real life 24 hours a day.”
For Stewart, the spiritual surfaces in the intangible qualities of interpersonal relationships. “You can’t always put your finger on why you’re drawn to someone or utterly repelled,” she remarks. “There’s a spiritual nature to that.” She describes the spiritual as less of a matter of whether we believe in ghosts or not, but rather the energy of the “things that we know to be true that we can’t touch,” such as when the “memory of a person who’s not here anymore manifests itself.” Stewart says that it’s a hard energy to pinpoint, but she believes in it.
Stewart and Assayas also discussed the energy that connects them when they work together on a film. They first met during the shooting of Clouds of Sils Maria, over the process of which Assayas “really discovered Kristen and began understanding her.” He is appreciative of their “nonverbal communication on set, which is so precise, so accurate, and that works so well” for both of them. But, he notes that the character Kristen played in Clouds of Sils Maria “certainly didn’t have the richness of human texture that [they] tried to represent in Personal Shopper.” Assayas describes Stewart’s character, Maureen, as multi-layered and states that “the complexities of her character take all of the space in the film.” Indeed, Stewart’s character is almost always on screen. That’s why, Assayas says, “I think it’s also a movie that’s so dependent on the actress, who is there in the shot understanding all the tiniest nuances.” For a “movie that really functions on such tiny details,” Assayas emphasizes that “you need to have this sharpness, this sensitivity in common.”
Stewart describes the intimacy of the director-actor relationship that develops without even meeting with one another. She explains, “Sometimes I’m attracted to something because I understand it completely and I can do it in my sleep,” or “alternately, I’m really into stuff that blows my mind and then perplexes me completely, and so that was the latter” in the case of Clouds of Sils Maria. She says that after she read the script of Personal Shopper, she “felt immediately closer to him” since all of the concepts presented in the movie are so fundamental. Stewart describes the validation she felt when Assayas presented her with the script because it meant that he thought they could understand it together. She states that she began to “know him on a much deeper level without even having a meeting about the script.”
Maureen is very complex and enigmatic character, and Stewart describes the the kind of alternate reality she lives in. She asserts that “always being close to death makes you feel so alive.” Her character is “so blank, so completely deconstructed, and so not entitled to whatever sort of default casual common reality we all typically dwell in.” Stewart adds that “she’s incredibly lost and closed off, and all of her relationships are like projections.”
In Personal Shopper, Assayas extensively explores elements of genre and incorporates many in the film. He says, “I’m using genre the same way I would use color on a canvas; if I need this specific color, I will use this specific color, and if I need another color, I will also use it.” He continues, “When you are telling a story, when you are making a film, you want to express the emotions, you want your audience to follow your character and relate to this or that thing she’s feeling,” and “if I want to emphasize that feeling, I will use something that might be a genre element.” Assayas explains the genre elements bring a physical reaction and connect on a physical level, which is an essential part of filmmaking.
Personal Shopper features a unique soundtrack and soundscape, which are very sparse at the beginning of the film but become more layered and builds in intensity as the story progresses. Assayas said that his choice to start with silence and build on it “brings us back to the question of genre.” He explains that “sometimes when you want to create an effect, when you want to emphasize elements of fear, of danger, of anxiety,” the soundtrack “pushes it a tiny bit further.” However, Assayas has always felt a bit cautious about using about soundtracks because he doesn’t like film music that much. He prefers to use “sounds because at a specific moment, they echo and they express emotions.”
As both explore themes of the paranormal, Personal Shopper is often compared to the works of Alfred Hitchcock, specifically Rebecca, which also tells the story of a woman who is tormented by a dead spirit. But with its artful genre experimentation and soundscape that incorporates textures of the digital world, Personal Shopper modernizes the psychological thriller for today’s audience. The film is scheduled to premiere in the U.S. in March of 2017.