‘THIS is a ghost story. It deals with the invisible.’
So says Olivier Assayas, director of Personal Shopper, a film which boldly confronts perceptions of the supernatural.
Maureen Cartwright (Kristen Stewart) is a young American woman in Paris who makes a living selecting clothes for a rich celebrity. The work is thankless and unfulfilling but Maureen is willing to bear it while she waits for her deceased twin brother to make contact from the afterlife.
As Maureen’s frustrations grow, a series of anonymous text messages spark a personal turmoil that begins to bleed into her professional life.
Speaking to esteemed film writer – and host for the night – Ian Haydn Smith in front of a captivated audience at the Curzon Soho, Assayas cited John Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing), David Cronenberg (The Fly, Videodrome) and Wes Craven (Scream, A Nightmare on Elm Street) as the inspirations behind his venture into supernatural themes.
He said: ‘They [the directors] deal with issues that are very profound and ultimately they are more disturbing and more profound than what is considered serious filmmaking – especially when dealing with issues of visual and invisible, and life and death.’
He continued: ‘When I am dealing with abstract, metaphysic ideas we don’t feel that it should be associated with genre filmmaking, but I think the opposite.
‘I think genre filmmaking is our best key to getting there because genre filmmaking connects physically with the audience.’
Yet it is Assayas’ European approach that brings a refreshing twist to the genre and allows for a cerebral examination of an individual’s relationship with the invisible.
At times, Personal Shopper feels like a psychological study not too far from Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010). It is riveting, but also leads the audience down a path of self-reflection that opens up a more nuanced discussion about our own interpretations of the supernatural.
The director stated: ‘I wanted to make a film that deals with the supernatural but not in the way that American genre movies relate to the supernatural.
‘In the sense that American culture is so defined by mechanism – by good and bad. Visible is good and what is happening outside of visible is evil. I don’t think that way. I think there is something fascinating in the invisible.’
He explained: ‘We all have a completely different relationship with the invisible because ultimately we live in societies where religion has faded, so very few people have a solid religious vision of the world and of the afterlife.
‘It’s nonetheless a question that we all have, even if it is pushed under the rug. It is there for every single one of us. We all build our own convictions.’
As Assayas pointed out in his introduction to the screening, the supernatural elements of the film are made credible by an extraordinary lead performance from Kristen Stewart.
The two worked together on Clouds of Sils Maria in 2014, a wonderfully acted film observing artistic expression and filmmaking. It proved to be a ‘watershed moment’ (Ian Haydn Smith’s words) in Stewart’s career.
Of course, the director has taken much of the praise for breathing fresh life into her career following the commercially successful – but critically panned – Twilight franchise.
Assayas said: ‘I think I was the right person at the right moment. I didn’t invent her. Everything she does is her own hard work. I am just the person who happened to give her the space to express it because it’s all a matter of control.
‘When you are working in a Hollywood framework, it is all about control and there is very little room for actors. It’s all about supervision.
‘In independent European filmmaking tradition it is the opposite. Actors have a lot more space. I did with Kristen what I have done with all the actors I have worked with – give her space. But for her it was completely new.’
Assayas gave insight into this fluid approach to the storytelling process, including his laissez-faire approach to scenes – allowing actors to work on instinct rather than meticulous notes. Also, his willingness to let actors adapt the dialogue to fit their own voice. It is a platform that allowed Stewart to flourish.
The highly engaging 62-year-old went on to say: ‘I was also the one person who told her: ‘It’s ok to be yourself’. It is extremely basic but I think it was useful for her.
‘All of a sudden it gave her confidence. I was the one who helped her with that but it is also to the credit of Juliette Binoche.
‘When we made Sils Maria together, part of the story was that Kristen wanted to work with Juliette because she admired her. She admired her freedom, the way she has been able to move between independent filmmaking and more mainstream filmmaking, protecting her freedom.
‘That was something Kristen was interested in, and the way Juliette improvises and constantly reinvents her scenes is something that Kristen used as a model.’
After a follow up film to Clouds of Sils Maria fell through the day before shooting – an exasperating blow for Assayas and a sad loss for audiences – the director returned to Paris and began conceptualising Personal Shopper.
When writing the film, Assayas came to the conclusion that the lead character would have to be a foreigner in Paris, his main reference point being Stewart. It soon became apparent that the role was not only inspired by Stewart but written for her. Unsurprisingly, the actress took the role immediately after receiving the script.
We can only hope that there is more to come from this partnership although Assayas noted that Stewart will be making her own films in the future (she made short film Come Swim this year).
The director’s admiration for Stewart was clear to see, and one remark from Haydn Smith about her incredible use of body movements sparked a fascinating anecdote about the level of detail that goes into the actress’s performances.
Assayas revealed: ‘When we started making Sils Maria, I had seen her in movies, I had loved her, I had met her a few times. I liked the person and thought she had very big potential but I didn’t realise how unique she was.
‘What made me realise how unique she was is how she uses her body on screen. The preciseness of the consciousness she has of the space where she is acting and where the camera is. What lense it is and what she can do to position herself.
‘It is very silly but in one scene in Sils Maria all she had to do was open a curtain but the way she opened the curtain I could not believe my eyes.’
There are plenty of ‘curtain opening’ moments for Stewart in Personal Shopper.
Make sure you do not miss them. Personal Shopper will stun, grip and probe your inner self, even if you consider yourself the most obdurate of supernatural cynics.
PERSONAL SHOPPER IS OUT IN CINEMAS ON FRIDAY THE 17TH OF MARCH
Visit Curzon cinemas