Olivier Assayas' new film is part ghost story, part drama, and it breaks all the rules.
French film critic-turned-writer-director Olivier Assayas has a knack for the unpredictable. One of the most innovative filmmakers today and a ravenous film intellectual, Assayas has spent his 30+-year career using each new project as an opportunity to push himself—and the medium—somewhere new.
His latest achievement, Personal Shopper, is no exception. In fact, it’s divisive: critics booed the film at its Cannes premiere; the next night, it received a standing ovation. Is Personal Shopper a good film? How do you judge art that doesn’t adhere to any standards? The fact that Personal Shopper won Assayas the coveted Cannes Directing Award speaks volumes—clearly, the jury sensed something worthy going on behind the camera.
The film, in US theaters March 10, is most simply described as a ghost story, but nothing about it is simple. It’s certainly entertaining, but it also eschews genre and structure. Parts of it are satisfyingly scary, but in terms of both story and intent, it's full of unanswered questions. Mystery and mood prevail.
No Film School sat down with Assayas to get his story-behind-the-story—and despite all the mystery, he was surprisingly open about how he makes films, and why.
Create your own film school
"If you’re reading this article, you’re on the right path," Assayas said. "I came to filmmaking through watching and thinking about movies. I did a lot of reading and writing, but I didn’t realize that was the path when I started. Instead, I came from visual arts: painting, drawing, graphics. I wanted to make movies, but my approach was purely visual."
Assayas was quick to admit that although painting got him interested in film, it didn’t give him much of a headstart. "At first, films felt like an empowered version of painting," he said, "but then the more I grew up and began to access the medium of cinema—making short films, my first features—the more I realized that painting was only a part of it. The other part, an essential complement to the visuals, is writing."
"Every single movie I make—every time I’m on the set of a new film—I feel like it’s the continuation of whatever I’ve been doing since I first began making films."
Assayas learned this the hard way. His first films, he revealed, were as amateur as yours or mine. "I made a couple of short films, and they were… you know…." His voice trailed off, embarrassed and apologetic. "My shorts were part of the aesthetics of the time, but for me, they were not satisfying. I just felt they weren’t what I wanted to do.”
"But then I got lucky," he continued. "I met some writers from the Cahiers du Cinéma magazine, and they suggested I should write about films."
Writing for the Cahiers du Cinéma is how many legendary French filmmakers, including Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette, got their start. It was an extraordinary opportunity—but even so, Assayas hesitated.
"Like any would-be artist, I was suspicious of film critics," he confessed. "They were scary to me. But I also understood that criticism was part of French film history, that you could become a filmmaker through writing. After all, from the very beginning, Cahiers du Cinema had been edited by would-be filmmakers—that’s where they learned their craft. So I realized that it might be a good thing."
"Writing for the Cahiers wasn’t just film school for me—it was essential."
He weighed his options, then jumped. "I had not done film school," he said. "I wanted to learn about film history, film geography, film politics—and they gave me the chance to do all that while doing journalism, exploring the world, traveling, discovering film cultures I was not aware of, being able to meet and have conversations with filmmakers I admired, keep my ears open and listen to what they had to say."
Assayas' memories came flooding out. He was almost giddy. "Writing for the Cahiers wasn’t just film school for me—it was essential," he said emphatically. "But it’s a lost tradition. It was so much part of the culture, and now it’s gone."
His disappointment was palpable. He doesn’t like modern criticism—or, rather, what he perceives to be the lack of it. "Now, you have critics who simply rate films from one to four stars, they don’t analyze anything," he said. "Film theory has a bad name. It should have a good name. Trying to make sense of the movies you see, trying to make sense of the human condition through the stories we tell is essential. It’s vital."
Build a body of work
Assayas is one of the ultimate film theorists of his generation. Some call him a maverick, but he would never describe himself that way. Yes, his movies break barriers; they redefine the medium and provoke questions. But even more important, his films are his way of questioning himself, of testing his own limits. He seeks out contradictions and complexities on purpose.
According to Brad Deane, TIFF Cinémathèque programmer and a French Cinema scholar (La Nouvelle Vague, in particular), Assayas is one of those special directors "whose body of work builds towards something."
Assayas agreed with the compliment. "Deane couldn’t be more correct," he said. "It’s something I’ve been obsessed with. Every single movie I make—every time I’m on the set of a new film—I feel like it’s the continuation of whatever I’ve been doing since I first began making films."
"You don’t make movies to please people."
This cinephile’s journey has been far from aimless. Indeed, each successive film has led him somewhere. In 1986, the year after he stopped writing for Cahiers, his film Désordre won an award at the Venice Film Festival. In 1994, his film Cold Water made it into Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section. Two years later, he was back with one of his most famous films, Irma Vep, a radical remake of Louis Feuillade’s silent serial Les Vampires (1915-16).
Assayas has a habit of surprising viewers. But even so, his films aren’t "weird" for the sake of it; instead, they feel strangely normal.
"One thing that people often get wrong about my work is thinking that I make very diverse kinds of films," Assayas said. "For me, they are all an exploration of the world’s different layers. Some deal with the future, some deal with the past, some deal with emotion, some deal with politics, some deal with fantasy. But ultimately they all complement—not contradict—each other."
Assayas acknowledged that his career-long approach isn’t for everyone. Some filmmakers like changing it up, shifting from one style to another. Others—including many great, respected filmmakers—build coherent bodies of work by sticking to the same framework, genres, characters, and actors. As examples, Assayas cited Finnish writer/director Aki Kaurismämki and Italian still-life painter Giorgio Morandi. "Morandi would spend all his life painting the same vases and bottles in different textures and colors, at different hours of the day," he said.
Assayas smiled and shook his head: no way he could do that. "I function differently," he continued. "The totality of my films is the world itself. If you put them all together, they reflect my experience of the world. Yes, my films change angles, but each one observes the same world in all of its layers and contradictions from one specific angle. An essential for me is that every single movie I make somehow complexifies the relationship within my own body of work. So when I make this or that movie, what excites or interests me is that it echoes and eventually changes the perception one can have of some of my other movies."
"But you can’t say that to producers or financers," Assayas laughed. "Hopefully, they won’t read this."
Make art for yourself, and yourself only
Despite his accolades, Personal Shopper has received mixed reviews. This doesn’t phase Assayas.
"When movies are finished, they are behind you," he asserted. "They’re like grown-up children leaving home. They have friends, enemies; they live their life. Whatever. Good for them. You’ve had the responsibility of overseeing where they’re heading—and if they do good, great—but ultimately you’ll love them no matter what because they’re your children."
Assayas’ unconditional love for his film-children doesn’t equate to blind faith. On the contrary, he is modest in his approach to both life and filmmaking, acknowledging that there are many sides to everything.
"When you make movies, you hope everyone will love them," he admitted. "Unless you’re Lars von Trier, you don’t try to make confrontational movies. But on the opposite side, you don’t make movies to please people."
"When movies are finished, they are behind you. They’re like grown-up children leaving home. They live their life. Good for them."
Assayas may be a renegade, but he is certainly at peace with himself. "Ultimately, I make the movies I can make," he said. "I don’t have some hidden strategy: that I should say this, in order to get that reaction. I make the one film I’m capable of doing at that one specific moment in time, and I try to do it as well as I can and push it as far as I can. Sometimes it’s within the framework of what people expect, and sometimes it contradicts it. And both those things are good!"
Whether people love his work or reject it, their reactions don’t change the way he makes art. He views this as a strength. "My only question now," he laughed, "is how will I manage to get my next film made!"
Explore complex ideas, and don’t settle for less
Assayas is a scholar, not a salesman, and he’s not ashamed to admit it.
"I don’t pitch my films," he admitted. "I don’t know how to do that. That’s something that filmmakers in the US are obliged to do. Like it or not, they have to learn how to do it, while I have the privilege of functioning within the European independent cinema framework. I don’t know how to sell my films; I hardly know how to make them!"
For Assayas, film isn’t a game that can be won or lost. It’s a wilderness to be explored. His ambivalence towards mainstream appeal and recognition doesn’t feel defensive, like a reaction to bad reviews. Rather, it proves his profound enthusiasm for film as an art medium—and his distaste for commercial filmmaking. In the long run, this approach has solidified his reputation as one of film’s most radical, original voices.
"Because I’m not focused on commercial success," he explained, "I’m able to get away with what really interests me: complexity. I’m more interested [in] what you can’t pitch than what you can. I think that movies, like novels, are about one thing and another simultaneously. I think that any art is about questions as opposed to answers."
"I don’t let grips or focus pullers put tape on the floor as a mark for actors. Actors should not be dependent on the position that the technicians give them."
If Assayas is always asking questions, so are his critics. Reviews accuse Personal Shopper of shape-shifting from one genre to another. But Assayas absolves them: "They want me to give them labels, but I don’t like to simplify the description of my films. I don’t see films as single genres, any more than I see the world in single colors."
Shades of his background in visual arts still color his work. "My films are like collages," he said. "Two different things colliding, creating a third one, which is up to the imagination of individual viewers. They all interact with each other."
Assayas understands why his work confuses some people: "Everybody, including film critics, are looking for solutions. They want movies that say bad is bad and the good is good. That capitalism is horrible, that poor people struggle, stuff that we already know. But the world is much more complex than that, and that’s what excites me: I love to explore the fact that most questions have multiple answers."
Let your actors improvise
The way Assayas sees it, a lot of his questions are answered on set, through a mix of collaboration, improvisation, and trust.
"Once a film is finished," he said, "I love to discuss my movies and use big words, but when I'm on the set I function on a very primitive level. I react intuitively."
Much like his body of work, his on-set collaborations are an evolutionary process. "Films are like music," he mused. "Finding the right balance of notes is an abstract process. In the case of Personal Shopper, that meant finding the right actress, the right cinematographer, people who are in sync with you and your inner understanding of character."
For him, the right actress was Kristen Stewart. They had already worked together on his last film, Clouds of Sils Maria (for which she won a César for Best Supporting Actor); here, she plays the role of personal shopper and part-time medium, trying to reconnect with her dead twin brother. Many agree that she’s never been better.
"It’s very difficult for the cast and crew because I push them into the scene without a safety net. The cameraman doesn’t have time to adjust his lighting; the sound man doesn’t know where to put his boom."
"The pacing of Personal Shopper is very much a combination of Kristen's work and mine," he said. As he pointed out, her role was largely self-reliant: it involved solo experiences, like channeling spirits and an extended conversation via iMessage. "So I had to trust her."
In fact, he encouraged her to direct from "within the film": to move however and wherever she wanted, to take as much time as she needed within a given scene.
In his world, the “energy” of filmmaking matters far more than the craftsmanship. "I don’t let grips or focus pullers put tape on the floor as a mark for actors," he explained. "That’s completely off the map, not allowed. I just freak out. Actors should not be dependent on the position that the technicians give them."
The result? “Kristen and I had a nonverbal communication that was essential—that’s how we functioned. Completely spontaneous, completely physical." As it turned out, Stewart surprised him. "A lot of shots ended up longer than expected. I was shocked, but I wasn't bored for one second—and they helped make it a better film."
DPs can improvise, too
Assayas also credits his cinematographer, Yorick Le Saux, for the success of Personal Shopper. "I’ve been developing a specific way of working with cameramen, which has a lot to do with improvisation," he explained. "I worked on it with Denis Lenoir, who I grew up making shorts with. Then I managed to take it further with Éric Gautier, Stéphane Fontaine. And now, Yorick."
Le Saux’s camerawork is kinetic: his camera floats like a supernatural being. The audience is thrust into a voyeuristic perspective, at first as spectator; then, as specter. It’s hard to tell how much was directed and how much was improvised..
In order to push himself and his style further, Assayas avoids rehearsals. "I shoot everything," he laughed. "Many of what you might call ‘rehearsals’ end up in the film. It’s very difficult for the cast and crew because I push them into the scene without a safety net. The cameraman doesn’t have time to adjust his lighting, the sound man doesn’t know where to put his boom. But somehow it works. They know it’s how I function and they’ve adapted to that technique."
"Movies have a duty to be responsible, to be stories that make us think. [I'm talking about] the independent art films that aren’t controlled by money, by law, by the demands of the industry."
A student of contrasts, Assayas favors complex tracking shots and long takes, but approaches them through improvisation. "I like the kind of unfinished energy that you find in early takes," he confessed. "I never prepare before the shoot. It’s like, day after day, I’m adapting to whatever I’ve done the previous day. Gradually discovering, defining the style."
Assayas designs shots on paper, but once he’s on set, everything changes. He is constantly revising blocking, movements, props. The process may sound reckless, but there is method to his madness. He is carefully careless. His eyes stay glued to the monitor. "Some first takes look interesting, some don’t work at all," he admitted. "But step by step, we always get it right.”
Along with the improv, the collaboration and trust are what make it possible. "Gradually we’ll come to a place where we feel we’ve nailed it, then we’ll do another take," Assayas continued. "And all of a sudden it looks so perfect and so clean that it’s boring! So now we know: there are only a couple of takes between not knowing how to do it, and knowing how to do it too well. Shots that touch the right nerve. The sweet spot."
Keep asking questions
Assayas loves contradictions. Part of him is obsessed with humanity’s flaws; part of him is an optimist. He believes in evolution—the potential for change.
In many ways, he’s a film guru. He keeps asking questions. He isn’t afraid of mistakes. He could care less about critics. Like a Zen monk raking a pebble garden each time a storm blows it astray, he finds solace in persistence. He accepts imperfection. Always one step ahead of himself, he seems well on his way to filmic Nirvana. And when confused critics and viewers try to ask their own questions, he greets them with a warm, droll smile.
"If there’s any message in my films," he said, "it’s The Question. The fact that the world has to be questioned."
He paused, then clarified. "Movies are about having a dialogue with your audience. What I don’t like about film as genre or entertainment is that it implies that the audience is passive, that they are on the receiving end of something. To me, they’re participants: yes, they’re watching what I want them to watch, but they’re also thinking about what my film is saying. They’re interacting—even contradicting, opposing."
It may be unwise to try to slap meaning onto Assayas’ work. But the very contemplation of meaning reveals the dialogue Assayas hopes to create. And in the case of Personal Shopper, these questions reflect a critical and hyper-complex worldview. Are we indeed slaves to images? Prisoners of social media? Seduced by abstractions? Controlled by our material needs? Are we really this lonely in the midst of plenty?
"Cinema has defined my whole life," he said. "It’s not just that I love telling stories on screen. I do—but I also think that films can be the good guy. Movies have a duty to be responsible. Not commercial films, the blockbusters that are so dependent on money and power. More like the parables of the old days, stories that make us think. The independent art films that aren’t controlled by money, by law, by the demands of the industry."
Assayas knows his ideal is not shared by everyone, but he can’t help it. "The movies that I love carry a notion of freedom," he said. "Especially in today’s world. Movies should be outlaws."