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Olivier Assayas • Director

"Women are usually the protagonists of my films because deep down I’m a bit of a feminist"


- We spoke to French director Olivier Assayas, who was awarded at Cannes for his film Personal Shopper and has just received the career award at the Zurich Film Festival

Olivier Assayas  • Director
Olivier Assayas poses with the ‘A Tribute to…’ award of the Zurich Film Festival

After giving her a secondary role in Clouds of Sils Maria [+see also:
film review
interview: Charles Gillibert
interview: Olivier Assayas
film profile
, Olivier Assayas went back to working with American actress Kristen Stewart in his latest film, Personal Shopper [+see also:
film review
interview: Artemio Benki
interview: Olivier Assayas
film profile
. It was with this genre film that the Frenchman won the Award for Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival in May. This time the actress plays a fashion expert who lives in Paris, waiting for her twin brother, who recently died in the French capital, to send her a message from beyond the grave. Suddenly she starts receiving mysterious anonymous messages on her phone. Reality itself is called into question in this special film of mystery.

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For its 12th edition, the Zurich Film Festival awarded the French director the A Tribute to... career award in honour of his entire filmography. On the occasion of him receiving the award, some of his films were screened at the Filmpodium cinema in Zurich.

Cineuropa: In Personal Shopper you use a ghost story to tell the story of the complex emotional journey of the protagonist. Do you believe in ghosts or should we see this as a way of managing our inner selves?
Olivier Assayas: It’s a question of terminology. If you say you believe in ghosts, it sounds stupid. But I believe there are non-physical things in this world, invisible forces among us. Life isn’t just material. We grapple with our fantasies, dreams and fears every day. Very real things that we can’t see. 

Recently you caused a stir by declaring Kristen Stewart as the best actress of her generation.
She’s solely responsible for many of the scenes you see in the film. The film was greatly influenced by what she created and her unique contribution. I think she likes filming with me because she has freedom as an actress that she doesn’t get with Hollywood productions. For example, she was surprised to find all the scenes she shot for Clouds of Sils Maria in the final cut. She’s used to shooting twice as much as is needed in Hollywood. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t reflect all the work the actors put in. 

Did you watch a lot of classic horror films to make this film?
I’ve seen a lot of them in my life. One of the most thrilling experiences you can give audiences is a horror film. The viewer’s reactions become physical. There are a lot of cinematographic factors to be borne in mind if you are to succeed in making one. I’ve always admired independent directors who were devoting themselves to genre in America as I was just starting out in the film industry, in the 1970s, such as John Carpenter, Wes Craven, David Cronenberg, etc. In fact, I interviewed all of them. 

You wrote about film in Cahiers du Cinéma, before becoming a director. Did this experience influence your directing style? Did it make you more aware of how your films would be analysed?
For me, writing about film when I was young was like going to film school. My training was focused on the arts and this work made me aware of aspects of film that were previously unknown to me. I was very reluctant to get enthusiastic about anything to do with sound recordings and videos; through this work, I learnt to appreciate film. 

Why are woman at the centre of the stories in most of your films?
I think that deep down, I’m a bit of a feminist. Although I’ve told stories about men too, what inspires me about women is the way they’re taking a stand in the modern world. I think it’s what defined the 20th century and is still defining the 21st century. Male chauvinism is the path of evil into the society we live in; it’s the reason for the violence that afflicts it. 

Is it true that you’ve always tried not to be considered part of the French independent film movement? Is this one of the reasons you shoot in English with American stars such as Stewart or Chloë Grace Moretz?
I didn’t like the idea of being pigeonholed into one particular type of film, without the chance to reinvent myself as a creator. I also really like filming in a way that brings different cultures together in our modern, globalised world. It’s an issue that few directors broach. Using foreign actors allows me to do this. If I were to limit myself to the French interpretative spectrum, to those powerful names that guarantee funding for films, I would have few options when it comes to choosing my characters and forms of narrative. For example, I would never have been able to find an actress for Personal Shopper.

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(Translated from Spanish)

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