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From the Archive: Olivier Assayas on 'Personal Shopper' & 'Clouds of Sils Maria'

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22 Apr 2020
29 min listen

Another dip into the archive with this episode from May 2015 where Ben Eshmade spoke to French Film director Olivier Assayas about his consecutive films 'Personal Shopper' and 'Clouds of Sils Maria'.


I think that's what humanity is about. Cinema should not be ideological. It should not be defined by some message, you know, a one-dimensional message you're trying to convey. It should be about showing you the complexity of the world

From the Archive sees us dig into our extensive contemporary and classical music and cinema podcast archive as we rediscover interviews and discussions with artists, with our long-standing producer and presenter, Ben Eshmade. 

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From the Archive: Olivier Assayas on 'Personal Shopper' & 'Clouds of S

Another dip into the archive with this episode from May 2015 where Ben Eshmade spoke to French Film director Olivier Assayas about his consecutive films 'Personal Shopper' and 'Clouds of Sils Maria'.



BE: Hello and welcome to Nothing concrete, the Barbican podcast. I'm Ben Eshmade and this week we're visiting our archive and pulling out a series of interviews with French film director Olivier Assayas, talking about his consecutive films Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper. 

Preview clip, Olivier Assayas:
It's not only about losing a brother, it's about losing her twin brother, so it's really like she's half a person and needs to be one again.

BE: So let's start back in May 2015, with the director's film Clouds of Sils Maria. The film stars Juliette Binoche as actor Maria Enders, who reluctantly agrees to take a part in a revival of a play that launched her career 20 years previous. The film also stars Kristen Stewart as her young assistant Valentine and Chloë Grace Moretz as Jo-Ann Ellis, a celebrity-hounded younger actor.

Clip from Clouds of Sils Maria:

[Juliette Binoche] What do I need to do to do to make you admire me. Do I think too much? 
[Kristen Stewart] You can't be as accomplished as you are and as well rounded as an actress as you are and still expect to hold on to the privileges of you, that just doesn't work like that.

BE: Olivier is already responsible for films such as Something in the Air, Summer Hours and Clean. He spoke to me about this film. We started with the Clouds [of Sils Maria]. 

OA: Errrrm...Yeah, I mean I kind of discovered it without knowing what it was. I've been going there for a while just for hiking you know so one day I'm in my hotel room I opened the window and I see you know, this really beautiful line of clouds like, floating mid-air over the lake and I said 'wow, it's really beautiful'. You know, I just take my mobile phone, I take a picture you know, or something, and you know go back to bed, you know, something like that. And like a month later, I'm watching a DVD of a movie called Storm over Mont Blanc, it's a silent film by Arnold Fanck, you know, who was one of the pioneers of mountain photography, and there's a bonus, and the bonus is the malaria cloud phenomenon. 
And also, I discovered that those clouds I had seen like months before were actually famous clouds, that it was actually a cloud phenomenon and you know, I had no idea they were important clouds. I think that discovering that those clouds filmed in 1924,  when you when you had those really big heavy movie cameras and those guys just carried them, he [Fanck] gave a past to that landscape, he gave it a history and it kind of embodied the ghosts of philosophers, poets, painters, you know, who were inspired in the late 19th century, first part of the 20th century, [by] various landscapes. And then you put these two characters or more characters in specifically when we get to that point in the film, you put these two characters against this backdrop and that's the heart of the film. Yes, but it's not a backdrop, it becomes a character on its own. 

It... to me, you know, I wanted space. I wanted light, I wanted summer, you know, to me it was an outdoor movie which needed that needed sun, colour, warmth. But I did not want some kind of chocolate box type of you know, of Swiss landscape, I needed a landscape that was ambivalent, that had not just something mysterious, something that was both benevolent and malevolent. Something that felt, could feel menacing. And the snake brought me that, it just gave something not nice to the landscape, it gave it something you know, just inhabited by something that can instantly turn against you.

BE: And this film is about time or maybe youth and old age. And so obviously for the mountain, that passes so quickly, doesn't it I mean, that must have come into equation your head?

OA: Well yes, I mean it's um, it's really what I realised when I was watching the images of the Arnold Fanck short film because he's filming mountain tops, clouds, ice falls, whatever’s changed, they do not move, you know, they remain intact through the centuries. And here you had that film that kind of captured it on this grainy black and white texture, which inscribes time. So I was, there was something mysterious, strange about it, which had to do with the fact that the texture of cinema embodied the passing of time, because ultimately what [was in] Arnold Fanck's film was exactly the same thing I was seeing. And at the time, he must have felt when he was filming it that it was pretty accurate. Now, you have lost touch of that black and white texture of cinema, we have moved so far away from it, that all of a sudden time is integrated into the very texture, the very core of the cinematic texture. So, I mean, there was there was something mysterious, poetic that we are using too many words to try to define, but it was extremely important in the process of writing this film.

Clip from Clouds of Sils Maria: 

[Stewart]Jo-Ann Ellis' movie is opening up in Europe. She wants to meet you next week. 
[Binoche] Where?
[Stewart] Wherever you want, she'll come here if you'd like.
[Binoche] Definitely not here.
[Stewart]Maybe I'll tell her about the vault house. Have you Googled her?
[Binoche] No, I just looked at the pictures. 
[Stewart] Well, you should dig a little deeper, won't take you long to find all the naked photos, the latest updates on her exploits...
[Binoche] Such as?
[Stewart] Her breakup? with Andrew Beltram? Any idea who that is?
[Binoche] I don't know.
[Stewart]What world do you live in? He's like he's the biggest star.
[Binoche] 'Kay sure. 
[Binoche] Oh.
[Stewart] Hey, there are a shit tonne of them, so be careful. 

BE: It's quite interesting as well in the sense that this film, is obviously, it's a film and a play within a film and she's just come off the Barbican stage, actually.

OA: So it's um, was it fun to use that side of her talent both as a stage and as a film actress. Juliette is like the blueprint for Maria Anders. I like the idea of someone who's doing prestigious stage productions in the you know, on international stages, who plays in Godzilla too. And who at the same time does indie films in Europe, you know, so it's I think she's a very interesting symptom of modern actresses who is [sic] open-minded, tries various things, circulates within. When you're a filmmaker, most often you make movies in Hollywood, you stay in Hollywood making your movies, you're in Europe you make you're in the European film so and so forth. You don't walk the full scope of what the media has become. Actresses are confronted all the different sides of it. I suppose that's the reason why I made the film in English because it's something French speaking actress would not do. Juliet happens to be bilingual; she happens to have like two careers, she has like one career in France and one international career. So, it's, so she wishes she could embody modernity of absorbing the ever changing shape of the art form.

BE: We started with looking at the mountains. I mean, one of the other things I thought was quite, maybe similar, is the sense that these characters, whether they know it or not, all of them are reasonably lost. They're at a place in their lives where things are changing maybe, out of their control and that's something that you explore. 

OA: Yes, yes, yes. Yes it's I mean, ultimately the one stable character ends up to be, being Jo-Ann, her, you know she has this, she is very determined, she knows exactly what she's doing how she's doing it, she's totally in control, even when she pretends she's not. Maria (alias Juliette), she just went through a divorce, obviously a painful divorce, there is no other relationship really in her life. So it's all about her work, as can happen fairly often with actors you know and Valentine, she's an expat, she's really, you know, she's an American living in Europe, just making money, being Juliette's assistant, but her life is elsewhere. So we have those characters who are like, completely cut off. And they're also in the middle of nowhere in the Swiss mountains, so they are totally into whatever they are doing and what they happen to be doing is trying to make sense of the dynamics between those two characters in that. 

BE: How did you come to choose? Kristin and Chloë, I mean, you're looking for people that you thought had some similar aspects to Juliette? 

OA: Errrrrr.....Kristen was a pretty obvious choice, because I think she's amazing. I've always thought she was amazing. You know, I mean, now I read pieces about people saying, 'Oh, I loved her in Clouds of Sils Maria, I never realised she could act.' I mean, she's been an excellent actress ever since she started and she never made a wrong move as far as I'm concerned. No. So I was, you know, I was I mean, she was like, certainly my first choice and I felt incredibly privileged to be able to work with her, meaning not just working with her, but working with her exactly at that moment. There is that age when an actress all of a sudden discovers the scope of her talent, she realises she can do things she had never even dreamed she could do and all of a sudden, she just flies away.

BE: And Chloë, how did you come to that decision?

OA: Oh, Chloë was. I mean, Chloë impressed me. I mean, you know, it's, she turned 17 on the shoot, she turned 17, I mean, she was 16 when we're shooting most of the stuff. To me,  it's a very complex, sophisticated part with different layers. There's irony, this sense of humour. I mean, she she has all that, and I mean, you know, I cast her because I liked her very much and we Skyped as sometimes you do cast these days, and then I realised how young she was. And I totally freaked out. I said, 'Oh, my God'. I mean, you know, I suppose she's an actress. She has an affair with the young man, but much older than her. I mean, I flew to Toronto to meet her, and I just loved her instantly. I think she's amazing. You know, I mean she has a maturity that's just like way beyond, way beyond her years. She's the nicest person. She's the smartest actress I thought, you know. She was just perfect for the part.

Clip from Clouds of Sils Maria: 

[Moretz] I don't think you understand how much of an honour this is for me. When I was 15, I saw, oh my god, the movie you did with the, with the CIA and Harrison Ford. I'm so sorry. I'm blanking...
[Binoche] Oh, Beedle and Speck [sic]. Sydney Pollock was really nice. But sometimes I didn't understand what I was saying. I was too shy to ask. But fortunately, Harrison was there to help…a lot. 

BE: The interesting thing about her is the fact that she doesn't have that much screen time. But we see her through videos and Google Images.

OA: No, no, she exists simultaneously in this kind of, you know, abstract territory of YouTube and she's also a real life character who happens to be extremely different from the, you know, the media, distorted image we have of her and also brutally ambitious the same way. I mean, you know, just reflecting to Juliette: what she [Juliette] might have been at her at her age, and ultimately how cruel she had been herself to the older actress she was working with.

BE: Is there a sense that when you're writing, you create these characters and as we said, we've got an amazing character or backdrop to it, do you kind of like place them in this thing and then just set them off and see where they go.

OA: It's not the worst way of summing it up. It's sometimes it feels like that. It's a tiny bit more complex than that, because it's uh, you know, it's a process of channelling things. But I like to channel things to a point where I kind of control things because I've designed the framework, but where I can let them go loose and see what happens and be a spectator of what happens. 

BE: I was watching back some of your previous films and just trying to sort of see the sort of running themes and ideas. One thing, I think is very strong in your work and definitely in this case, it's the same, is that you don't judge people. You don't kind of say, that person's good or bad. You try and show that it's much more complicated than that.

OA: Yeah, I mean, I think that's what humanity is about. Cinema should not be ideological. It should not be defined by some message, you know, a one-dimensional message you're trying to convey. It should be about showing you the complexity of the world. Yeah, I don't think ethically in cinema you can be only on one side, you have to be on both sides and even if you yourself, you feel more on this or that side, ultimately, you have to have the capacity, that's what fiction is about and what the better fiction is about. You have the capacity to project yourself in the opposite worldview. And represent it as honestly as your own.

Clip from Cloud of Sils Maria: 

[Stewart]You saw Sigrid's ambition, and you saw her violence because you felt it in yourself. 
[Binoche] So?
[Stewart] So that's what I'm saying. This text is like an object. It's gonna change perspective based on where you're standing. You should go we're gonna miss the snake.
[Binoche] There won't be any snake.

BE: You seem a man who works very hard [both laughing], never stops. I mean I presume you've got two or three projects already kind of on the go?

OA: Well yeah, yes and no, I mean, you know, I will be shooting this summer or at the latest at the end of the summer. In the middle I had a project in the US which kind of fell apart, which is not a nice experience and didn't, you know, just, generate any sympathy for the system on my side. But you know, but still we might revive that project, who knows. So yeah no, I will be shooting in the summer, in in a few months.

BE: Moving quickly forward to February 2019 and an unlikely supernatural story, set in the fashion underworld of Paris in Personal Shopper. Inspired after working with Kristen Stewart on Clouds of Sils Maria, he wrote his next film for the actor. Stewart plays medium Maureen, who is trying to contact her twin brother, who died of an affliction that she shares. Meanwhile, she works for a superficial German supermodel whose day to day fashion whims, she has to supply.

Clip from Personal Shopper: 

[Unknown Speaker]: What are you doing in Paris?
[Stewart] I'm waiting. I'm gonna go.
[Unknown Speaker]:  What are you waiting for?
[Stewart]: My brother died here. My twin brother died in Paris. 
[Unknown Speaker]: An accident?
[Stewart]: No. No, heart attack. I actually have the same...malformation.

BE: Olivier spoke to me again. 
I was gonna talk about the sort of maybe, the continuation between films because Kristen Stewart who plays Maureen played Valentine, in the Clouds of Sils Maria, she disappeared. So it's quite nice because she disappeared and appears in Paris!

OA: She comes back, she comes back in Paris. Yeah, I mean, you know, I did not exactly imagine it that way. But it was always present in the back of my mind that it would end up the way it's understood. You know that it will be part of the film in a strange way. I mean, it's you know, it's when you use an actress in two similar parts into movies back to back, it kind of creates that kind of... and I like the notion I could have made this with another actress but in this case, it kind of echoes in an interesting way, but it mostly has to do with my relationship with Kristen really, I mean, it's because it's unlike everybody else. 

I mean, I kind of discovered her when we were shooting while we were shooting Clouds of Sils Maria um, you know, I really admired her, loved her. I was so happy she was part of the film but I had no idea of the nuances of the, you know, of the subtlety of what she could create. I mean, given the right space, and the right character, as happy as I was, I was also a bit frustrated because I realised that I could push her much further if it had been a more, more lenient part, but I mean, you know,  Valentine is kind of one dimensional. I mean, it's always been written like that, and it works like that. Part of imagining Personal Shopper was also about figuring out, you know, what the other dimensions of that character was, and also the excitement, of maybe, trying to walk that path with Kristen. 

BE: When we see the character of Maureen for the first time... I think the best way of describing her she's a lost figure.

OA: Which is something we gradually understand, right? Shea bit of a Cypher initially and then gradually, we understood a little bit more about her and finally basically why she's doing whatever she's doing and why she's in Paris in the first place. And yeah, I mean, you know, she's, she's like half a person, you know, she's grieving but it's not only about losing a brother, it's about losing her twin brother. So, it's really like she's half a person and needs to be one again. 

BE: Practically, once you knew you wanted to work with her more, did you sort of talk to her about what you were thinking about? Did you involve her in the script in any way?

OA: No, I don't do that. [both laughing] I mean, I kind of you know, it was more like, I don't know, I mean, you know, I, I thought it would be the process could be complicated. And maybe she would find the power too weird, or whatever. It's a comedy, it's a drama film. It's also dark. Is there [sic] something dark within the film. So, it's, so I, you know, I could understand that she would not be at ease with that. She was in Paris, we had a drink. And I've written this new screenplay, and she said, I want to read it. I want to read it. That is, you know, if there's a part for me, I would love to do it. I said Kristen, well, you just read it first before we start discussing it, you know [laughs]. And so she read it, and she wanted to do it, and there was something completely obvious about it. It was completed, but I think she kind of understood exactly, I mean, the thing is, that we have this kind of nonverbal communication. We don't have like big conversation, but we are just like, exactly on the same wavelength. 

BE: I mean, it's a big compliment someone writing a screenplay with you in mind the central character. 

OA: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yes. And, you know, I think she, actors are in a certain way more aware than writers of what the movies actually are. When you write, it's a figment of your imagination. It's, it's a bit abstract. It's more a blueprint than anything else. But for an actor, he reads the screenplay, and he just basically has to figure out exactly how we will go through those scenes, how we will go through those emotions, and they become very real. So, I think she was she in a certain sense, she was more aware than me of where this movie was leading us. 

BE: Again, because you got to work with her for a second time, could you push her at certain points? Did you? Did you redo scenes many times or was there anything that you did?

OA: Ummmm, it's honestly… I had no pushing to do because she would really like push us. She would, she would usually go much further than whatever I had anticipated in every single scene. I mean, you know, I think, you know, it's really like, there were many ways of approaching that character and that film, but she grabbed every opportunity to push it as far as you could. It was really exciting. But it did get, you know, I kind of tried to channel it. It immediately changed my perspective. I mean, the second she was on set for the first scene. I knew that there would be no limit for her, you know, she would she would try and go as far as she could, in every single scene. And you know, and that's when I understood that she let this character and those situations echo fairly deep in her, but that's the way she functions also, you know, she has to be completely involved with the character. 

BE: What was the first thing, was it chronological order?

OA: Actually, it was in one of the showrooms, in fact, which was to mean, like, not one of the key scenes in the film, it was pretty much about her job, and eventually some of the ambivalence towards the job and towards fashion and she was trying those shoes and high heels and I don't know, she brought out the sexy potential of it in ways that I had not, I didn't imagine we would go that far. But then when she started doing it, I realised she was, like, hundred percent right. And I knew that was the way she would approach every single scene and she was giving us a lot and taking risks.

Clip from Personal Shopper: 

[Stewart] This is perfect, this is nice, thank you. This too.
[Unknown Speaker] See this? [inadudible whisper]
[Unknown Speaker ]: I'd like to say that on you, you don't want to try them on?
[Stewart] I? You know her? I can't.
[Unknown Speaker] But you want?
[Stewart] Sure, I mean, you if you could keep your mouth shut, maybe but you totally dicked me over the last time I did it.
[Unknown Speaker] Try on the shoes at least. I'll get them. 

BE: One thing I realised when I was thinking about the film afterwards is that we see the film through her eyes. All the other characters, even if they feel like they're there, they're quite ephemeral, or the other characters are very...

OA: Yes, I mean, you know, and most movies are about perception and about some distortion of it. And I think and this one even more, so I mean, every character in a way or another belongs part to reality, and part to our imagination. It's really more about how you interact with the world, how one person interacts with the rest of the world, as opposed to something that has, like, dramatics based on that interaction. Movies like Clouds of Sils Maria, it was about the interaction. It was it was all about the confrontation of those two characters. This one is more about how someone tries to feel her way into a world that's mysterious, based on the fact that she thinks there are things visible and things invisible. And she's trying to, in that sense, to be aware to every nuance of what surrounds her. 

BE: Let's talk about the supernatural, which obviously, is a major theme. Were you obsessed at some point in your life? 

OA: Well, aren't we all I mean, you know, it's one of the basic questions, you know, of life. Is the material world all of it? I mean, is that everything or other things happening in other areas of our imagination, or even truly of reality, and is there another layer to reality? You're never completely at peace with that question. No, no, no one is, I mean, even the most materialistic person knows that we apprehend the world in very… I mean, the world is complex, isn't it? And, and we know that our lives are so much about our inner conversations here, I kind of push it like one tiny step forward and externalise some of those inner conversations, some of those inner fears, some of those inner anxieties. And I think it's a process that anyone can understand. And it's also the reason why I think we react. I mean, it's not a matter of liking or not liking, but how we react to all filmmaking. It's not because it's some external threat. It's because they deal with some internal threat. And that's what's so disturbing sometimes for us.

BE: I get the impression that you quite enjoyed playing and mixing different genres of films. I mean, if you look at it on paper you could describe it as a horror film, but that's really not a fair description. 

OA: No, it's not. It's not that you know, I think I use what can be perceived as genre elements when I actually do need them, the same way we'll be using a colour in a canvas, you know, so you know, I'm painting a canvas and they need the colour red, I mean, I'm going to use red. And, but that doesn't mean that I'm painting the whole canvas red....And I think that it's all about the dynamics of narrative. I mean, especially when you're dealing, you know, because it's a movie that of course can be seen and [there are] angles through different layers, there is, I suppose a more abstract layer, it's what we're discussing now. But it's also about, you know, keeping the audience interested, excited. It's about also not being boring, you know, just making an exciting film. So, sometimes when you're dealing with abstract ideas, maybe you can twist them and make them actually fun or exciting or scary. That's when you use your element. Someone I immensely admire is David Cronenberg. That's the way he functions. I think that David Cronenberg makes very serious films about deep issues, except you know, that there is this kind of suspense and genre elements that makes his movie fascinating.

BE: It's interesting, you're making me think as well, that she never stops in the film. As well as travelling from France to London on a motorbike crowded with bags. Never, never stopping.

OA: Yeah, she, you know, I like the idea of someone who's doing the difficult job. And part of the film is, is how her thought process interacts with her job, which is something which is something that concerns, like, everybody, everybody, does it ultimately, you know, difficult and invasive jobs. But they survive because they have some kind of inner life, and in the in that sense, again, I mean, today we live in extremely materialistic societies, who have some kind of guys who could despise the thought process, anything that would sound too intellectual or whatever, but I think I think it's wrong. I think it's in our ideas, in our fantasies, in what's immaterial that we find some consolation, some peace, as opposed to being, you know, slaves to our jobs.

BE: Yeah. I think it's quite nice asking, you know, it's an incredible amount of films that you've made now. I mean, it sounds like you're always trying to challenge yourself.

OA: Yeah. I mean, it's that what's exciting. That's what's exciting. You know, because when you finish making a film, it's not like you feel that you can do much more going in that direction. I mean, you just put everything you could in that film. And so now just to just to get excited to have, to build back your desire, you need to go in another direction, you know, do something you've never done, try something you've never tried. And it has to be challenging. If it's not challenging, it's boring, you know, because it's all of a sudden you start doing the stuff you've already been doing and I think also movies are so much about the present, you try to capture something that's floating around and channel it at the end. So it's kind of important that your writing be in sync with your emotions, but also in terms of moving forward,  I need to feel I'm moving forward with every film.

Clip from Personal Shopper: 

[Stewart]: So we made this oath. Whoever died first would send the other a sign. 
[Unknown Speaker]:  A sign? From the afterlife?
[Stewart]: You could call it that, you could call it a million things.
[Unknown Speaker]: How do you know if it's a sign?
[Stewart]: I'm a medium. He was, he was a medium. I'll just know it. 

BE: A duo of films which fit perfectly together. If asked, Personal Shopper would be the first film I would recommend from Olivier, a fresh, genre-jumping piece of cinema, all carried by a powerful performance by Stewart. I'm Ben Eshmade.

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