The Great Invisible: With Personal Shopper, Olivier Assayas Makes Serious Stabs at the Supernatural

Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper is an attempt to evaluate cinema’s potential to represent and reflect upon the invisible. For the French auteur, it’s a continuation down the same path he trod with his 2014 feature, Clouds of Sils Maria.

Personal Shopper tells the story of Maureen (brilliantly played by Kristen Stewart, who also starred in the 2014 film) who has recently lost her twin brother. The siblings had long ago made a pact to send a message to each other from the great beyond if one died before the other.

In this ghost story of sorts, Assayas does not treat the invisible lightly. His mind does not stop in front of the dimension of the unknown; for him the invisible is real, conceivable, almost measurable. It’s an approach that feels radical especially when juxtaposed with the visuals-obsessed, conservative materialistic culture in which Stewart’s character—as the titular shopper—is mired. We asked the director about how his philosophy bleeds into his approach to cinema.

Olivier Assayas on the set of Personal Shopper

Amir Ganjavie, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): An element of mysticism is very central in both this movie and your previous film, though I think you go even deeper with it here.

Olivier Assayas (OA): I think that the notion of connecting with the invisible is something that’s central to cinema. You have to be very naive to not realize how little control that you have over what you film. I think that there is much more to what’s going on in a shot or in an image than you think there is. Because you end up recording it, cinema mysteriously feels connected with the invisible in ways that other art does not. I think that’s the beauty of film. And yes, it’s very difficult to get there, so I’m trying and trying and it’s always been present in my films, a sense of relating to the subconscious. I think that a lot of filmmakers I have admired do that, such as you see in the best work of the Coen brothers. I’m trying to get there too, step by step.

MM: What you’ve said reminds me of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, when he argued that during the Renaissance the presence of the invisible led artists like sculptors and painters to have more possibility of thinking about imagination. He talks about the age of rationality and how this rationality somehow ruined the imagination.

OA: Yes, I very much agree with that. I think that sometimes when we are in a relationship with the invisible, or religion or spirituality or whatever, we are blinded by the preconceptions that we have of what religion is really about. Religion is a code word for connecting with another world. We all know in one way or another that the world we see and touch is not the whole of it. There must somehow be something else, regardless of whatever you call it. It’s called different things in different cultures and during different periods in time, but the common element is that of having some kind of key, and being able to connect with your own intuition of what is around us or inside us that is both complex and fascinating. This is beautiful access to a world of ideas, to a world of hopes, to an understanding of the world and human existence. So yes, in the way I understand it, what Deleuze is saying is profoundly true.

MM: I think that in contemporary society, when people think about the supernatural they don’t know how to react or to behave. Audiences in contemporary society don’t easily accept the invisible in cinema.

OA: I think that people are made uneasy by the idea of taking seriously what is beyond our perception. People are just obsessed with materialism, not only in terms of being only interested in money and fame and images, but also in terms of their own lives; they just don’t accept having a connection with some sort of spirituality. I think the opposite. I think it’s vital. I think it’s essential. I think it’s what gives us some kind of balance as individuals.

MM: When I look, for example, at some of the movies from the 1930s or 1960s, I see so many forms of ghosts and representations of god, unlike in contemporary cinema. Although as Bruno Dumont beautifully puts it, in the cinema God exists. We could have God in the cinema; we could have many kinds of  imaginations.

OA: It’s a kind of trance. Today people are very interested in depicting the social world by representing things from a sociological angle. Intellectually, they have more respect for documentaries than for fiction. I think that good documentaries are good films, I’m not questioning that, but the idea that you can capture reality by just filming it with your camera and presenting it undiluted and unfiltered is extremely naive. I think the opposite, because fiction enables us to connect with things that are under the surface, and fiction helps us to explore dimensions of humanity and the world that are hidden. In that sense there is always something experimental in a work of fiction, because you are trying to access uncharted areas.

MM: French cinema apparently did not develop a healthy relationship with the supernatural

OA: Yes, but you know, there’s a thin thread that has kept it alive. There is a very specific strain of French movies dealing with the supernatural. Josh Fizeau was someone who was connecting with that. I think that he was really genuinely interested in that dimension. Then, of course, there is the master Robert Bresson. He is a filmmaker whose cinema is all about dealing with the invisible, and even if people would not put him in that category, I think he belongs there in a certain way. It’s the same thing in literature.

I’m describing this because it’s what I’m trying to connect with. Making this film, I’m trying to reconnect with something that’s more French than American in terms of the relationship to the invisible, because in American culture and in American filmmaking, that world of imagination is structured along Protestant fault lines, meaning there is this notion that what is not visible has to be evil. There is this notion that somewhere lurking around us is pure evil, and if you access any kind of other world then you will discover only evil. I don’t share that vision. I don’t have that kind of Manichean notion; I don’t think that such a thing as pure evil exists. I’m trying to make a movie that revives in its own way this kind of specific French vibe.

It’s also very present in poetry. Symbolist poetry had a very strong connection with the esoteric and poets of the generation of the clan, decadentists and all, were very close to spiritualist circles. I referenced a lot of poets that I drew upon not for literal representations, but for inspiration in terms of mood and imagery.

Kristen Stewart as Maureen in Personal Shopper. Photograph by Carole Bethuel

MM: We are living in a digital world that includes things like, for example, Photoshop. Do you think this is useful for producing movies about spirituality?

OA: You know, we worked for a while on this film, and it was a process of trial and error. We tried different versions and every single time there was something that looked like a digital effect and did not work at all. So we were really trying to do it the old way, to make it look like it’s been done with superimposition. Anything that looked too abstract or digital was completely wrong.

MM: How did you create the ghost scene, then?

OA: It was complex because we used CGI, which I had never done before. I had no idea how much of that I wanted to show. I had no idea how long it would be, but I learned. At some point I tried to use spiritualist photography from the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a reference. I looked at the mediums they tried using to represent whatever it was that they felt they were seeing. There are all of these fascinating examples of photography where people were trying to take pictures of ghosts, so I used those images as a reference. I even gave those images to the woman who was doing the special effects for us. Of course, I also gave her written descriptions. We tried to do something that was as close as possible to the imaginative world of the spiritualists.

MM: Many moviemakers dealing with the supernatural bring in elements from horror movies or action movies and mix things in. The idea of a ghost story is sometimes ridiculed.

OA: Yes, of course. That’s why it was very important for me to ground the story in the period when people took the notion of communicating with another world extremely seriously. That was a very short window in time between the middle of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century. That period also saw a lot of technological innovations which suddenly and deeply transformed our relationship with the world around us. Suddenly, you could send electromagnetic waves and make a radio transmission; this was invisible and yet it was happening nonetheless. This started to raise questions like what is visible, what is not visible, and so on and so forth. It was the same thing with X-rays, telegraphy, photography and cinema. During that period communicating with the spirit world was not considered to be any weirder than a lot of what was actually happening. It makes me think about Victor Hugo, whose art was enhanced and empowered by their convictions that they had been in touch with the supernatural. When you read the transcript of the discussions that Victor Hugo had with ghosts, it’s extraordinary, it’s beautiful, it’s modern poetry, and it’s possibly some of his most extraordinary work.

MM: I like the courage of the film, especially when I think about the scene in which Stewart’s character sees an image of her brother’s spirit and they try to communicate with each other. Yet they don’t behave like crazy people.

OA: Yeah, to me it was very important to represent the possibility of communicating with another world as a fact and with characters who talk about it in completely straightforward terms. They’re not weirdos; they discuss it the same way that people were discussing those things at the end of the 19th century. It was just something that was very grounded because they were convinced of the existence of a parallel world.

MM: You have worked with Kristen Stewart in both of your “ghost” movies. What about her makes her interesting for your work?

OA: She is so physical and straightforward and pragmatic. If you have someone who feels weird, or who just kind of floats around and believes in ghosts, then it’s [too much] a part of the genre. Here you have someone who is just so physical, so grounded, so down to earth, and she’s trying to connect to a spirit. So that it gives something more real, something we can relate to in modern terms, because she’s very much this modern girl.

Assayas and Stewart worked together for the second time on Personal Shopper

MM: In the previous movie, Sils Maria, she dislikes her boss to some extent, and in Personal Shopper it is also the same—she masturbates in her client’s bed and appears to be hostile toward contemporary society.

OA: Yes, she is. That was the original conception I had of the film: I really wanted to make a movie about the tension between the material word—for so many people, that’s very boring day jobs—and the spiritual one. Luckily, their lives are not only about the former. Instead, they have the inner worlds of their imaginations, which are somehow a form of salvation, a form of consolation. I like the idea of someone who had to do jobs she did not like, which just did not connect with her genuine values. Of course, she also has an ambivalent relationship with her boss, just like we all have. Modern culture is disturbingly obsessed with superficiality. But at the same time that superficiality can be fascinating, and for the same reason she can also be attracted to whatever she is projecting. Also, because we are dealing with someone who feels as though she has lost half of herself, we see that she is trying to reconstruct herself. She is going to question her own identity. She’s on that thin line between androgyny and womanhood, and possibly the fashion world, which she also dislikes.

MM: Twenty minutes of this movie are, essentially, texting. What was the original idea behind that? How did that fit into the script?

OA: Texting is so much a part of our lives and has been for so long that to me the question was, can we represent on film the intensity of that form of communication? I don’t think that it’s a gimmick. It’s the power that texting can have. Can cinema capture it?  I wondered this, because I had never really seen it and I was experimenting. I was just questioning how far I could stretch it. I myself experienced this fascination with what was happening on the screen. I think that the dialogue you have with someone through text messaging is more focused; it’s stronger than any in-person conversation, which can be very diluted when you have only a few words to say. With texting you go straight to the point with what you have to say, sometimes maybe even in brutal ways. You write things that you would not say verbally. The question was if there was a way of reproducing that dynamic, and I thought that it would be simple in technical cinematic terms, but it turned out to be absurdly complicated. It was absurd because we edited it and re-edited it and re-edited it again. We redid the screens and we redid the wording. I kept on changing it!

MM: Why did you end the movie with the final scene in the Sahara?

OA: I wanted the film to end in the desert because I wanted it to feel like she has left everything behind. It’s like a blank space, where she ends up, and she’s face to face with herself. MM

Personal Shopper opens in theaters March 10, 2017, courtesy of IFC Films.

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