the spiritual inspirations behind 'personal shopper'

Director Olivier Assayas talks working with Kristen Stewart and why fashion-industry grunt work can yield spiritual longing.

by Colin Crummy
17 March 2017, 3:55pm

As a fashion-industry side job, ghost hunting might be a little strange. But in Olivier Assayas's Personal Shopper, that's the job he gives his character Maureen. Played by Kristen Stewart, Maureen's day job is scooting around Paris as a clothing buyer for an obnoxious, rarely seen actress-model. But recently bereaved of her twin brother, Maureen is also a spirit medium on the side.

Stewart, who worked with the director on Clouds of Sils Maria, proves she's the actress of the moment. She makes the all the weirdness work as the film casts its ghostly eye over contemporary living, urban isolation, and the living dead.

Here, Assayas talks through some of the inspirations and themes for the film, an intriguing and unusual mash up of contemporary snapshot and old-fashioned ghost story.

The Genre Mash-Up
"It's all about mixing things that aren't supposed to meet. What's exciting about modern filmmaking is that you can try to connect dots that previously were not meant to [be connected]. I don't really think in terms of genre. I think in terms of character and story. If sometimes I need to use different genres I will use them, but it's all part of one story which is the story of Maureen and her mourning. I compare it to using colors on a canvas; if I need red I'm going to use red. It doesn't mean I'm going to paint the whole canvas red."

The Medium and the Personal Shopper
"Ultimately as weird as it sounds it's pretty obvious, even too obvious. I wanted to tell the story of someone who is a bit like all of us, torn between the day job which she does to make a living, to pay the rent, and her higher aspirations, her hopes, her imaginations. We live in a world that is very materialistic and we all have some sort of spiritual longing. To me it was very much of a portrait of a contemporary character with some universality to her. I went to extremes that her day job was working as a proletarian of the fashion industry. She does a superficial job that she dislikes where she doesn't find satisfaction. There is spiritual longing, trying to connect with an invisible world."

The Contemporary Snapshot
"It's a bit about alienation, about someone who is working for someone who she doesn't really see, like a lot of people today. It was important to make a portrait of someone who is very lonely; it's very much about urban, ultra-connected loneliness. I liked the idea that her job was about bringing bags from point A to point B. Her boss is largely absent."

The Spiritual Element
"I used something that is anachronistic to express something contemporary. We live in societies where we have lost our connection with religion because we don't believe in the modern world. But that attraction to something anachronistic is important. Losing that thread is not as easy as it seems and each of us ends up finding their own way to get it back. Modern society leaves us very alone. What we do with those longings, what we do with our dead, with the big questions — basically nothing — there are no easy answers. Everyone has to invent their own path to fill in the gaps. Maureen doesn't actually believe in the afterlife. She doesn't believe her brother will give her a sign but she hopes he will and somehow that hope is her way of processing the death, the mourning, and the pain."

The Influence of Hilma af Klint
"I discovered her when thinking of this film. She was this amazing missing link in the history of art. Kandinsky and Mondrian were the breakthrough guys of modern abstract painting and they had a connection to spirituality. Hilma af Klint is all about the connection between spiritualism and abstraction. She was totally convinced the spirits guided her hand and created the abstract paintings; at the time nobody did that kind of stuff. She was so scared by it, she never showed them in her lifetime. For the story, I wanted to make a movie that was the opposite of those American genre films where what lurks in the nether world is evil, where what is invisible is evil. I wanted to make a film about the invisible. It doesn't have to be scary. It can be an inspiration, as it was for the great work of Klint."

The Inspiration of Kristen Stewart
"I would never had made this film without Kristen. If I didn't know her or trust her I wouldn't have ventured in that area. She brings reality and truth to everything she does because she is so grounded. You can feel when you direct her how she needs to totally invest in the character. Every single movement and word has to ring truth. It's an instinct with her. It's what allowed us to venture into areas that maybe would have scared me with another actress. I knew she would give reality to the fantasy world of Maureen."

Personal Shopper is in theaters.


Text Colin Crummy

Kristen Stewart
Olivier Assayas
Personal Shopper