UNRAVELLING PERSONAL SHOPPER WITH OLIVIER ASSAYAS
This interview was originally published in Spanish in Jot Down Magazine and can be found here.
By the accounts of those who were there, the general reaction to the first public screening of Personal Shopper, before an audience of 2.000 people at the Grand Theatre Lumière in Cannes, was not very cheerful. Apparently, the boos of the majority were much more audible than the timid applause of the minority. This was April 17, 2016, and Cannes audiences maintained their strange habit of dealing with the sleep deprivation that their extreme professionalism causes by booing the very works that support their profession. Five days later, the controversial jury presided by George Miller answered those boos by awarding Olivier Assayas the award for Best Director for Personal Shopper (ex-aequowith Cristian Mungiu).
But beyond its anecdotal value, the truth is that this initial division caused by Personal Shopper was an advance of what would happen when the film started touring the World: this is a film that leaves no one indifferent, generating opposed views and diverse opinions in every viewer, even in the same viewer if seen more than once.
Personal Shopper tells the story of Maureen, a young American who works as a personal shopper in Paris, where she has decided to stay in order to wait for a signal from the beyond by her twin brother, who was a medium like her and who just died of a sudden heart attack caused by a condition that he shared with Maureen. Part character study of its millennial protagonist, part horror ghost story, one of the themes of the film is precisely this genre balance, which arises from the strange balance that the protagonist finds between her alienating work and her spiritual search.
I was very interested in contrasting those two worlds, because I think they represent very well something that happens to us all today. We are divided between the daily routines of our modern daily jobs, which are usually alienating and boring, and our personal lives, where we acquire individuality and leave room for imagination, which in the case of Maureen has to do with spiritualism.
This contrast between both worlds is reinforced by the visual language of the film, for example in terms of light: the first scene related to spiritualism is very dark and full of shadows, while the first scene of work is very bright, full of white and shining colors.
It's a good question, because I've never really thought about it like this, but it really makes sense. Because initially she divides her time between her work, which obviously takes place in broad daylight and is therefore related to light... And it is when she is not working, that is at night, when she can abandon herself, to her personal spiritual search. Later, when a certain kind of response suddenly appears, when the character gets a certain connection, it is when some elements of that spiritual search come out into the light of day. And in the end, that's the way the movie works: it takes us towards a moment when the two worlds somehow meet. It's interesting because I did it totally spontaneously, but seeing it afterwards it makes all the sense.
Although it would seem that the world of work condenses everything negative, and the personal world everything positive, the images seem to tell us that Maureen feels trapped in both worlds, because at the beginning of the house scene (belonging to the personal world) there is this shot through the fence, and towards the beginning of the first scene of work it’s the jewels that stand between us and her, trapping her in the frame.
No, I don’t see it that way. I don’t give this meaning to those shots. I think the image of the jewels has more to do with their attraction. Because she is ambivalent towards her work, and especially in that scene, which is a moment in which we realize that no matter how stupid her work is and however frustrated she seems with it, there is something that appeals to her, and we are not sure what it is... We do not know if she wants to steal those jewels or what... and gradually we realize that she is ambivalent towards that world in the same way that we are ambivalent in our relationship with the modern world: we all feel uncomfortable with her materialism, its violence, its brutality, its growing stupidity, but at the same time we are part of it, we have no choice, this is our time and we all try to do our best and we also have within ourselves the capacity to enjoy it, or to least to be part of it. I think Maureen is ambivalent about her work just as we are about our jobs and the society in which we live.
The contrast between both worlds is also emphasized through the use of space: the first time she enters Kyra’s house (which is clearly a work space) the first thing she does is organize her closet, while the first time she arrives at her own home the first thing she does is open Klimt's book (which is related to her spiritual search).
Sure, totally. When you write a script, you have to insist again and again on the important things, and in these first scenes it was essential to highlight that contrast. And also, the first scene at Kyra's house was important for me to show her isolation from Kyra. This is part of the way I imagined the film, that she works for someone she never meets. It's a comical exaggeration, of course, but it reflects even more the alienating nature of modern work. She works for someone she hardly knows and whom she never sees... like all of us in a certain way.
Another element that reinforces this idea of a divided life and its relation to our normal contemporary experience are the scenes of transport to and from work, what Americans call "commuting". There are many scenes like these in the film, whether on a motorcycle or train.
Yes, this was the intention. To show the transition between the two worlds. But this is also related to the fact that I wanted to set the film in Paris, in the everyday life of Paris. Maureen is a character who floats around the city, because her real life is not there, she is far from home, she is in a country that she barely knows, and she is only there to deal with the loss of her brother. So, I needed something that would give the story something solid to build on, and that was Paris. And I was very careful with all the circulations in Paris, they had to make sense, they are not just shots of her driving the motorcycle, but she is going from one specific point to another and by a very specific route. It is not that I give a symbolic value to the places of Paris, it is that I have thought about where everything would be without tricking it, and what streets I would travel to go from one place to another.
Another central theme of the film is femininity. For example, there is a moment when Maureen is asked to double as a model for a shoot, and we see her being treated as an object, acting as a model... But the most interesting thing happens right after, in a brilliant cut that goes from the photo of her posing to the image of the doctor's monitor, in which we see an ultrasound of Maureen's heart. We can infer that this same image could have been that of the sonography of her late brother (who had the same heart condition), so that this cut contains a magnificent reflection by taking us from a beautiful female body, although treated as an object, to some genderless "guts", which are also treated as an object, but in this case in a scientific sense.
Yes, this cut was very important to me, so much that it was already planned in the script. Normally I do not work like that, because when I'm writing I do not have images in my head, but here I had this very specific image of this cut that I wanted to make, that for me I should express everything you have said, plus also a certain idea of the banalization of images.
Another scene that touches the subject of femininity is when Maureen tries on Kyra's dress before the mirror and ends up in bed masturbating, to the rhythm of "Das Hobellied" sung by Marlene Dietrich. Why did you choose this song?
Honestly, I do not know... I can describe the process, but there are many reasons. It was never foreseen that this scene would be so long, but it ended up getting longer because I realized that what Kristen was doing was so much better than anything I had imagined. Because she has to undress, get dressed, look in the mirror ... and I thought it would be too long, so I told Kristen that we would roll it all at once but then I would cut it to reduce it, so she didn’t have to worry, just take her time and not try to speed it up, because we would fix it in the edit. But I knew I wanted to shoot it in one shot, though. Then we started shooting and I was literally stuck to the monitor, because suddenly what Kristen was doing was impressive. And I think this is very related to how Kristen works: she's like a contemporary dancer. She has an incredible awareness of her body, of her movements, of how with a tiny movement of her body, with whatever she does, she catches the attention of the spectator. And I think this is what makes her a wonderful actress. Then only at that moment, seeing how she did it, I realized that maybe this scene could work as one, very long sequence shot.
But in any case, I did not want music in this scene, I was sure of that. I thought it worked because it was silent. Because music always takes you to some kind of fantasy world, one way or another... I went through the first montage of the movie and I did not want music there... but then I realized that I needed some kind of background sound for the computer moment, when she opens the laptop and searches Google for the photos of her boss on the red carpet of Milan to check her clothes, and I liked the idea of opening a yellow-press website, but I needed some kind of sound or background music. And there was this Marlene Dietrich song that I love, which is my favorite song by her (I have no idea why, it's a record that my mother had, so maybe it's a childhood memory or something...), but this song has always created something very emotional for me. So I put it very short as a background of the laptop part, and I liked it so I thought maybe it could melt or overlap with the next scene when she undresses, and it worked... so we extended it and I realized that suddenly that moment became something else, which became much more important in the film than I had planned. (...) But it's interesting because this song accompanied me throughout the script writing process, and I thought I wanted to use it at some point in the movie, but I was not sure when or how... and I actually thought I would use it in the scenes of motorbike, because initially I liked the idea of her listening to music while riding a motorcycle, so as to make the situation bearable, so I put different songs in each motorcycle scene, but then I realized that I liked more the sound of the engine and the cars.
The scene of the dress and the masturbation is visually related to the second scene in the hotel: they are the only two scenes in which there is a fade to black within the scene itself (that is, we fade to black but then we return to the same scene ) and both scenes contain camera movements in which we move backwards to get away from the action (in the scene of the hotel there are several movements that take us from the room to the street, in a clear reference to the famous movement that Hitchcock invented in Frenzy).
Yes, absolutely, because they are the two most important scenes of Maureen's sexual desire. I'm glad you got the reference to Frenzy; that camera movement is one of the moments that captivates me the most of Hitchcock's cinema, a filmmaker that I obviously admire a lot. The masturbation scene was quite longer, it stretched a lot, but I felt uncomfortable with it, so I cut it a bit. I thought there was something impudent... and that if I left the whole scene, so long, it would suddenly become the only thing that people would talk about, that everyone would be obsessed with this scene and only hear about it, and I did not want people to mistreat the movie because of that. So, I used a cross fade to black to shorten it a lot.
That cross-fade while Maureen masturbates in bed is the only cross-fade of the entire movie, which involves the risk of highlighting that moment too much, using a resource that is never used in the film.
Yes, it is true that there is a certain risk, but in any case, it does not attract attention in a disturbing way. Better to call a bit of attention via a cross-fade than a very long scene of Kristen Stewart masturbating, which would undoubtedly have become the only focus of the film.
Personal Shopper uses many genre tools to provoke primary responses in the viewer, and then combines these tools with its own style. In this sense, it is interesting how you film different scenes that are essentially the same repeated action, introducing variations in one of them that alert us that something is about to happen. A good example is Maureen's arrival at Kyra's house: we see this situation several times, but we always wait from inside and we see Maureen entering, while the last time the scene stretches for no apparent reason and we accompany Maureen when she enters the building, gets on the elevator, walks down the hall... And precisely because of this time dilation, because we are seeing all this which we have never seen, we are suddenly on alert because we sense that this difference in filming style implies that something different is about to happen:
Yes, Yes, of course. I like the idea of delaying the moment we discover Kyra's body, and I like that moment of returning to that kind of rhythm in which we follow her because of her boring daily routine, she is late... she suddenly accelerates because she realizes what is happening... and suddenly BAM! You find Kyra's body. I like the idea of slowing down the scene. It's like slow motion, as if you used slow motion to enter the floor and suddenly... When you use that kind of shots of people entering, leaving... either they are very simple and boring establishing shots, or you turn it into a way of creating some kind of tension. Because the viewer knows something is happening, he asks himself "why is this showing us all of this now, slowing down the action...?". So, there is a sense of threat which is generated.
Another thing that could be considered a genre tool is the way to illuminate the first scene, the first attempt to contact the ghosts of the house. There are several close-ups in which the face of Kristen Stewart appears completely dark, like a black spot. The fact that her torso is a little more lit shows that the shadow on her face is fully deliberate. Bearing in mind that you renounce the expression of Stewart's face to convey the tension of the moment, it would seem that sometimes the tools of the Director of Photography are more powerful to transfer certain emotions or tensions than the face of a (great) actress.
Well, I don't know if I'd say it like that [laughs]... We used very little artificial light in general in this movie, because we wanted to keep the shoot as light as possible, especially when we were shooting in the house. In this scene Yorick, my Director of Photography, was really on the edge of total darkness. And it was really fun because we filmed this in the Czech Republic, and part of the team was ours but obviously many technicians were local people, and they were used to working on American series or TV movies, or in German soap operas. And Yorick had a Czech gaffer who was not very smart, and when Kristen came on the set that day, it was very, very dark (because Yorick went out of his way to block as much light as possible) ... then that gaffer approached Kristen and said "I'm sorry. It was not me, it's my boss's fault." And he did not say it in jest, he said it very seriously, as in "I'm a good professional!" [Laughs].
One of the best details of the film is related to something as simple as the smoke of a cigarette. The scene in which Maureen speaks with Ingo and tells him that she’s a medium and that she’s trying to contact her brother is filmed in a shot reverse-shot. As they talk, Maureen begins to smoke, and just in the moment when she says she has sensed a signal from her brother, we cut to a shot where the smoke of the cigarette acquires a great presence, which clearly references the ectoplasm of the ghost.
Yes, I’m very glad that someone finally noticed this. But I cannot take the merit, because it's impossible to plan something like this. But let's say that this is the good thing about making movies, that sometimes you have a stroke of luck that generates something wonderful like this little detail. Of course, in the edit I used this take because this happened and I was interested in this effect of the smoke, so I could say that at least I knew how to take advantage of my stroke of luck. (...) Although I edited this take here for this reason, I usually always depend on the actors more than on my own interests as a filmmaker. For example, with Kristen I usually end up editing the first takes almost always, because she has a very special magic in the first takes that is almost impossible to recover afterwards. So, considering that I never rehearse, but use the first takes as filmed rehearsals, you could say that the final edit of Personal Shopper is largely made up of rehearsals [laughs].
The color of the costumes is used to mark the progression of the protagonist: for much of the film she usually wears black (which clearly refers to mourning for the death of her brother) but in the final sequence in Oman (bathed by a very white desert light) she wears very white clothes, as to mark the end of that mourning and the closing of the protagonist's wounds. Although she also wears other colors during the central part of the film, like the silver of the dress she puts on when she wants to feel sexy for the hotel.
The film goes from the darkness of the house to the light of Oman, it is all a path to the light that culminates with the fade to white at the end, and that is also reflected in the color of the wardrobe, of course. As for the silver dress, I loved it because it reflects the light, and it has something metallic that makes it a kind of armor, like a chain mail, which makes all the sense because she needs to protect herself by going to the hotel to meet that mystery man. So that was in the script, just like the black harness and the black jacket that, as you say, should emphasize the mourning. But they are exceptions, because normally my way of working with the actors is that I give them a lot of space to create their character with the costume designer. That is, I ask the designer to have many options that work and let the actors wear whatever they feel most comfortable with in each scene. For me, an actor is first and foremost a person, so I do not want to feel like I'm filming someone wearing the clothes that I have told them to wear and with which they do not necessarily feel comfortable. Because in real life our way of dressing is part of who we are... So, costumes for me are part of the process of having real people, and not just actors, in my film.
Many people have praised the way you have integrated new technologies into this film: WhatsApp conversations, Skype calls, Google searches... are presented as the totally everyday activities that they are in our day to day. And in addition, they are used in some sequences as real dramatic tools: in fact, the two most tense scenes of the film revolve completely around the screen of a cellphone. In any case, what is clear is that in a film full of screens the director has to ask himself how he is going to film those screens: your answer is most of the times to shoot close-ups of the screens, but there are two moments in which the screen of the laptop becomes the frame of the film, as if the camera entered the screen: in the documentary about Victor Hugo and in the second Skype of Maureen with her boyfriend, Gary.
It's a subject that I thought a lot about, because although it may seem banal, for me it is directly related to the status of cinema in the contemporary world. Nowadays there is a great confusion around how we see images. We tend to mix things. Because images suddenly appear here and there, and I think the question of how all these images connect to the cinema and what their relationship is with the cinema is very important. And I firmly believe that cinema is of a different nature than all the other images. The cinema is not one of the multiple possible images, it is the only image that really has the capacity to see otherness, to face alterity. For some reason the other media cannot really integrate the relationship of our reality with the way we consume (or are consumed by) images. (...) To answer directly to your question, that decision has to do with the capacity of the cinema to recreate perceptions. We had to take into consideration that sometimes when we see images, we are looking at the screen of our mobile phone and the reality that surrounds it, while at other times we are absorbed by what we are looking at.
The longest shot of the film is the last one, when Maureen thinks she has heard a signal from her brother. This is another magnificent example of your ability to dilate time: a mid-shot of Maureen in which we are denied the reverse-shot that would show what she is seeing and fascinates her... and ends up fading to white after more than 3 minutes.
Yes, it is the longest shot by far. We do not cut because at this point what interests us is not what is happening outside, but what is happening inside her. But again, as in the scene of Marlene Dietrich's song, the very long duration of the shot is something that Kristen created with her acting. I think this is the shot that scared Kristen the most, because she knew that all the emotions on this shot had to occur on her face, that we should read them on her face: Maureen thinks that she has finally connected with her brother, but suddenly she has doubts, she thinks again and tries another question to see what kind of answer she gets, and the answer is confusing... and gradually she realizes that she has not found hers brother, but she does not know what exactly she has found... until she realizes that maybe the truth had been hidden inside her from the beginning. And she realizes that, so instead of fading to black we have to fade to white, because it's something that has to do with that feeling of closing wounds, with that feeling that now the future can open up for her.
At the end of this long shot, just before the fade to white, Kristen-Maureen looks directly at the camera, breaking the fourth wall in a gesture that is very connoted, especially in French cinema, because it was used at the end of countless films in the sixties, after the famous look to camera of Jean-Pierre Léaud in The 400 Blows.
We shot this in a very small set, so I had to curl up in a position where I could not see Kristen. So, I had to watch the shot only through a small monitor (I usually look with one eye at the actor and another at the monitor). So, when we shot this take that is edited on the film, which I thought was much better than anything I had imagined, and that was very exciting, Kristen came up and said: "What? How about…?". And I said, "Kristen, it's hard to see in this thing, but I think it was very good, maybe the only thing you could do better is, why don’t you try to look at the camera at the end?" And she answered me: "But Olivier, that's what I just did!" [Laughs]. So that final camera look is something she decided spontaneously, although it also occurred to me on the set, separately. And I like it that way, because that makes the way she looks at the camera more interesting, because it's not obvious, nothing safe, but rather shy. She looks at the camera but she does it as intimidated, it's like she has the intuition that she should look at the camera, but since it's not something I've said or suggested, (and she also has no idea what the Nouvelle Vague is or anything like that...), it just came to her spontaneously, as if it were an animal instinct that at that moment she had to look at the camera, do something that actors should supposedly never do.