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Olivier Assayas on Kristen Stewart: She brings a modern energy to cinema

Olivier Assayas’ latest was greeted with boos and acclaim in equal measure in Cannes last year. “I am not making films for the consensus,” he tells Donald Clarke

Something spooky: Kristen Stweart in Personal Shopper
Director Olivier Assayas and Kristen Stweart on the set of Personal Shopper
Director Olivier Assayas and Kristen Stweart on the set of Personal Shopper

Nothing better puts the wind in a film’s sails than a vigorous booing from the bovine contingent at Cannes. The most loudly mooed-at film last year was Olivier Assayas’s ambitious, slippery Personal Shopper. The fact that the boos came in response to cheers was less well reported. Hey, the same thing happened to Taxi Driver. Maybe Olivier enjoys such responses.

“Well, I don’t enjoy it,” he says with a genuine cackle. “But I also know that I am not making films for the consensus. What’s exciting about film-making is doing things other directors don’t do.”

After the noise died down, Personal Shopper picked up some of the best reviews of the festival. Assayas went on to win best director. There is more than enough strangeness here to explain away the divided feelings. Kristen Stewart plays, yes, a personal shopper to an egotistical diva. The film weaves jarring strands of mainstream horror into the mix: spooky text messages and an actual CG ghost. The dialogue is icily unsettling.

“You use those genre elements when you need them,” he says. “It is like painting on a canvas. When you need a specific colour, you use colour.”

Assayas, who speaks beautiful English at a furious pace, knows what he is talking about. Now a handsome, grizzled 62, he is one of so many French directors – virtually the entire Nouvelle Vague generation for instance – who began by writing film criticism for the influential film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma. You can taste the depth of cinematic immersion in his playful 1996 hit Irma Vep. Since then, he has repeatedly defied expectation with a stream of playful, unpredictable features. Summer Hours went among the bourgeoisie. Carlos was a lengthy study of Carlos the Jackal.

What is it with Cahiers? Why has it continued to wield such power?

“I’m not sure it has retained its influence,” he says. “But back then the main thing about Cahiers was that it was the magazine of the guys who transformed cinema. The reason I wanted to work for that magazine in the early 1980s was because it was the one film magazine that was produced by future film-makers. I always wanted to make films. I never wanted to be a film critic.”

The son of director Raymond Assayas, Olivier is just about old enough to have been affected by the passion that gathered around the political disturbances of 1968. He was just a teenager then, but those pocket revolutions coloured polticial thinking for a decade. Assayas pondered that hangover in his recent film Something in the Air.

“You know growing up in the 1970s was a remarkable thing,” he says. “Those were special times if you were a teenager. You had this sense that the revolution was around the corner. Why connect with society? Why get a job? Why have kids? Why study? The whole world is going to be turned upside down. Right? That gives you a sense of freedom.”

Calmer times? Can we construct a converse to the theorem? Has contemporary French cinema, marinated in calmer times, become more bourgeois?

“You can still take risks if you work on a tiny budget,” he says. “The worry is that nobody will see the work. That’s another problem.”

Assayas credits the untouchable minimalist Robert Bresson as his greatest influence. But his films have tended to a busier, more textually entangled aesthetic than that would suggest. Over the past few years, he seems to have taken on Kristen Stewart as a muse. The American actor was one sort of factotum to Juliette Binoche’s grand actor in Clouds of Sils Maria. In the new film, she plays a different sort of servant to an only intermittently visible superstar.

Stewart has taken the most fascinating route away from early fame in Twilight. She became the first American actress to win a César when she picked up that French award for Sils Maria. She seems an unarguably contemporary sort of performer. There is nobody much like her.

“Yes, I think that’s the best way to sum it up,” Assayas says. “She captures something extremely modern, very contemporary. She is extremely smart and so articulate when she discusses her work. But she is also very physical. That is not common with American actresses. She is like those Nouvelle Vague actors who were individuals and brought their own modern energy to cinema.”

Assayas is now one half of an enormously respected partnership. His second wife Mia Hanson Love is the director of such brilliant, powerful films as Eden and Things to Come. “We manage to talk about others things at home,” he says cautiously. Meanwhile, his own interesting career continues its eccentric swerves.

Just a few short years ago, he was set to make an American crime film with Robert De Niro.

“That was so frustrating,” he remembers. “It was a true-crime picture in Chicago. It actually fell apart the day before shooting. The cameras were all loaded. The sets were built. I saw the American film industry from the worst possible angle. These things happen, but not the day before shooting.”

It sounds like the sort of experience he could turn into an interesting film.

“Maybe so. Maybe so. Ha ha!”

- Personal Shopper is out now