While his Cannes-winning thriller Personal Shopper (photo) doesn’t come out in German cinemas until early 2017, we couldn’t wait to talk to esteemed French auteur Olivier Assayas at the Hamburg Film Festival this week. Throughout his 30+ year career, he’s written for the influential magazine Cahiers du cinema, worked with some of the world’s most celebrated thespians and, through his connaissance of Asian cinema, helped introduce people like Hou Hsiao-Hsien to the European audience.
So we jumped on an ICE to meet with the quintessential cinéaste and talk about ghost stories, film criticism, why he kept coming back to Berliner actors like Lars Eidinger and why it's important to remain excited.
Your latest film Personal Shopper feels very Parisian. Were there any particular reasons – beyond the practical ones – to set the story in Paris?
Well, it’s been ages since I last shot a film in Paris. The Clouds of Sils Maria was set more in an abstract world. Before that I had done two period pieces. So it’s been a long time since I had the opportunity to shoot the streets of Paris, to shoot a character embedded in the reality of modern Paris. But actually when I was writing it, the location wasn’t an essential part of the film. It only became an essential part of the film when I began shooting it, because I realized I enjoy shooting Paris.
That said, this is a Parisian film with a twist, because I was also very conscious of the awkwardness, the weirdness of the space in the film. I wanted it to be Paris but I also wanted it to feel weird somehow. So from the start I knew I wanted to shoot the exteriors in the streets of Paris and eventually shoot the interiors and some specific locations in another country. So we actually ended up shooting a lot of the film in the Czech Republic. I had the flats of the characters Kyra and Lara built. I wanted something that felt both real and unreal.
Did you find anything about Paris that lends itself to a ghost story?
What interested me was actually the fact that Paris doesn’t lend itself to a ghost story. It’s so not part of the culture. Then again, if you look back to the second part of the 19th century, early 20th century, magic and the belief in the supernatural were a huge part of the French culture through the works of poets, writers, novelists, because it was a major time of discovery. It was a time when people started realizing a lot was going on in the invisible space around us. Germs, X-rays, electromagnetic waves etc. So, why not ghosts? Also there’s a very specific relationship between the French culture and genre narrative. Nowadays when we think of genre films like horror, thrillers etc., we think of a very Anglo-Saxon world defined by polarized opposites of good and evil. It’s this notion that, yes, there’s another world and if we access that other world, we’ll find some embodiment of evil that threatens us. That’s part of the Protestant culture, whereas France doesn’t have that much of a Protestant culture. It’s much less Manichaean. So the relationship with the afterlife is slightly different in the French genre narrative or literature. I wanted to reconnect with that.
It might be me but I also sensed some hints of oriental mysticism while watching the film…
Oh yes, of course. I was interested in a world where people would consider the existence of ghosts. Where it’s part of the culture to at least consider it. And of course Asian culture is one such world, very much so. So something that looks awkward in the French culture seems completely natural in most Asian cultures. In a way I was using this kind of cultural clash to produce a spark.
You’ve worked quite a few times with Berliner actors like Lars Eidinger by now. How did that come about?
Casting Carlos, which was the first film I shot in Germany, was a very exciting experience. I found out there’s this whole great generation of young German actors, a lot of whom spoke fluent English. So if I was to make a film in English, I could open up my perspective to include actors from the German film world – or theater. That has been an extremely exciting prospect for me. So ever since Carlos, I kept coming back.
You’ve shot in Berlin before. Would you say you have a relationship to the city?
I do have a relationship to Berlin. I love the city and have been going there for ages. But the thing is, I’ve spent time in Berlin, shooting films, promoting films, but I was never really part of the city. I was more like a foreigner doing his job while enjoying the vibrant city. I would visit the museums, clubs, so I would have a sense of the city, but I’ve never had to deal with everyday life in Berlin. I’d love to but that just hasn’t happened yet.
You’ve been a critic yourself. Where do you stand on film criticism? Do you read reviews of your films?
I don’t read them that much. I’ve always thought that it’s extremely important to have a notion of what you’re doing when you’re making films. When you make a film, you’re not just a storyteller – I don’t believe in that restricted view. I think you need to be conscious of where you’re standing in terms of not just film history, but eventually of art history. You need to be able to reflect on what you do. I think the notion of art theory is extremely important. And it’s very difficult in movies because we don’t have any solid art theory. There’s not a theory of filmmaking that’s relevant or makes sense. You have certain clans, groups, antagonisms but it’s not very interesting. And it’s always about “discovering” a filmmaker or a film. For me that’s not the issue. What’s important is trying to understand what’s happening with the medium, where it’s going, where it should be going, what the goals should be. At least that’s what at work in my films. When I make a film, I’m questioning myself, I’m questioning the medium, I’m questioning more or less where it’s heading. So what excites me in film criticism is not whether they invalidate or not invalidate whatever I’ve done. If they love this one or that one I don’t know. You have people who dislike Shakespeare, you know, so it’s not the issue. Ultimately it’s about having a dialogue.
So you think film criticism can be constructive?
I think it can be essential, vital even. I think it’s a dialogue you need. But not in terms of I like/I don’t like. But everything should be open to debate. I try to bring my own contribution to an ongoing discourse. It’s just unfortunate that’s not the way it works these days.
With all the snap judgments on Twitter...
Yeah, all that stuff. It’s not part of my culture, I decided that I have no time for social media.
You’ve done some intense character studies of characters both male and female. Do you derive more pleasure doing one or the other?
Well, what I usually focus on is just trying not to repeat myself. When I make a film like Personal Shopper, I’d get a bit nervous because you know, it’s about a woman alone in Paris and I’ve done this maybe… too many times. I don’t know if I’ll be able to renew, rejuvenate my inspirations. But then again as a filmmaker you’re dependent on your inspirations. I’ve been inspired by my actresses. I think it’s been part of my filmmaking. But at the same time I can also be inspired by history or historical characters like in the case of Carlos.
That movie, for example, felt decidedly masculine.
Yeah, it’s masculine – or also anti-masculine. Machismo and how that falls apart is one of the subjects of that film. What I mean to say is that what’s vital is the inspiration. To feel that you’re doing something that you haven’t done before, that you’re trying something exciting. Because if it’s not exciting for you, then there’s little chance that it’ll be exciting for the audience. But yeah, sometimes you’re dependent on your own individual obsessions. So I’ve come to experience both the urge to explore and the urge to come back to the fabric of my filmmaking.