It’s the day after Personal Shopper’s world premiere in Cannes, when a motor-mouthed Kristen Stewart sits down to talk about her star turn in Olivier Assayas’ supernatural high fashion arthouse procedural.
The film is her second with Assayas, after she stole the show as Juliette Binoche’s personal assistant in Clouds of Sils Maria. The way she tells it, she’s found her soulmate in Assayas, and Personal Shopper is far from their last collaboration. This time she’s in a lead role, but once again he’s got her playing another celebrity’s offsider. As Maureen, she scoots around Paris to collect high fashion items for an aloof employer who barely acknowledges her existence. Not that Maureen wants the attention - she’s mostly content to remain invisible to most people, to enable her more time to try and connect with the ghost of her dead twin.
Stewart’s breakthrough role was of course, playing a mortal being courted by a vampire in the Twilight franchise, so she’s accustomed to supernatural themes. It’s unexpected territory for Assayas, though, who reveals his own love of genre when he pulls off a few convincing thrills. The film’s gripping climax is straight from the Hitchcock playbook, and has Stewart’s Maureen ride a return Eurostar twixt Paris and London. On the trip Maureen is, as always, attached to her iPhone, and she receives some strange SMS messages from an unknown number. The substance of the texts have have a familiarity that holds the potential to get raunchy, til it gets a bit weird when Maureen - and we - warm to the notion that she might just be sexting with a ghost.
When we meet, Stewart has been in the south of France for over a week, having also appeared in the Woody Allen festival opener, Café Society . She’s had a break in between, in which she went away with her “team” “to decompress and get away so we could come back at Personal Shopper with a bit of a vengeance”. For both of her red carpet premieres at the 69th Cannes, she donned the ‘edgy/ethereal’ frocks that come with her role as a brand ambassador for Chanel, and her excitement about tailoring her look for the paparazzi parade that is Cannes, seems a good segue to talk fashion, fear, and Personal Shopper.
With Personal Shopper you give us an insight into that rarefied world of high fashion, and how it works.
There are a very, very small group of people who actually go and shop at Chanel showrooms and those people are the real “other worldly” wealthy people. It’s couture, it’s delicate, handcrafted, really precious one of a kind works of art so you are investing in an artform when you go and buy their stuff.
Chanel does stand separately from most of the others - they are an independently owned company, still, which is the last of the luxury brands. And you feel that. There is a genuine, very compulsive faithfulness to aesthetic and care for that aesthetic. They really do stand apart from the people who do it for farcical reasons. A lot of people want to look like they appreciate an aesthetic and beauty but… Some people look at a sunset and it brings them to tears. Some people don’t look twice. It’s a really human spiritual thing to be moved by an image. So within fashion, those people really stick out because those who don’t have it are there because they want to be popular, they want attention. They want to be looked at in a certain way and it validates them in some way to be looked at. That’s actually very empty. It’s just really easy to tell the difference between the two.
You’re back working with Olivier again. How was it different this time? How did you build on what you’d learned about each other from Sils Maria?
The roles are very different, for one thing. Olivier and I have a great relationship because we really ‘see’ each other. I feel like he really understands me and I don’t really have to explain myself to him. We usually agree. There’s a great, real friendship and a closeness that provides a trust that, like, just puts you in the perfect position to explore a difficult subject and always feel like you’re going to be caught by this safety net if you ever really, truly, fall too hard. And that only got deeper on the second go around.
Also just by nature of the movie, it’s so much more sad and you know, Sils Maria was bittersweet and a little bit tumultuous between those two characters, and there was pain in that, but it wasn’t as deep and as fundamental as the pain in this movie. It didn’t bring into question things that don’t have answers and that’s what this movie is about. It’s really about finding peace in not knowing where we’re going to end up and who are are and whether or not our reality is just our perception or whether it’s something that we share. We’re never going to know that. But it’s worth asking the question. It’s worth being aware of it. For both of us, we found that you need to be so raw in order to address those things. We’re just so close now. We’ve been through so much together now that we have those footholds to base a relationship off of, and we’ll only go deeper.
What was it like to have an iPhone as your co-star in so many scenes? How did you approach that and try to make those scenes interesting?
Oh God, what you can project onto an iPhone and into messages from somebody can sometimes be so one-sided! I was basically playing with my own version of myself. Also I felt like anytime there was going to be a close-up or an insert of the messages, it should feel like a close-up of me. You should feel the tension in my hands. You should feel every typo. Every choice in punctuation should speak volumes, because it is a new language that we’ve all sort of written ourselves. You have a different text voice, whether you capitalise something. Or put a period on it, or put a lot of spaces in between something, it says a lot! This is this sort of new language that’s interesting. That... [motions texting, with intensity]... I mean… [laughs]
Are you a big texter? Ever feel like you need a digital detox?
I’m not constantly reaching for my phone. I have a personal Instagram that allows me to stay connected to people that I don’t see on a regular basis, but I don’t have social media, I don’t have this heavy phone addiction. So I’ve never had to detox from it. There are times I find myself reaching for my phone for no reason and I just literally, go, ‘What are you looking for? Nothing!’. When i notice myself doing that, I realise that i’m actually just bored and that I should occupy my time with something else.
What did you think about the ghost story aspect of the film?
When I read the script, I kind of missed the fact that it was a ghost story, because my character, the way she was written, wasn’t that afraid. There was such fervent curiosity that drove her towards the ghosts that I didn’t find them scary in the script. I thought that there was just like a need for questions to be answered, and that need overpowered any fear-based impulse. Then when we got to make the movie... the unknown is terrifying and I don’t care who you are. That was much more theoretical, that idea of not being afraid. It was something that i could implicate conceptually, but literally, on the day, nobody could face those things and not be literally, physically, shaken by it because it’s like, I mean it is scary! It’s really scary. It’s just that while I was reading it, I didn’t realise that it was such a - quote-unquote - horror movie.
He really goes for some effective scares
I know, right?! But to be honest, I still find the scarier parts of that movie are when you can see someone suddenly aware of the fact that we’ll never know where we are or who we are necessarily. Those moments where Maureen starts reeling, and things become incredibly uncertain? Those are debilitating, anxiety-inducing, physically stifling thoughts. I know that feeling. I was like, ‘God, I’m so happy I’m not in one of those places, I’m so happy that I’m not um, in that right now’. Because I’ve had moments like that where I’ve been racked with absolute physical manifestations of anxiety, and it was just like, the only way to get out of that is to go for a run or to physically get yourself moving and really exert your physicality and get yourself out of your brain. Because you’re never going to find the answer. Again, it’s finding peace in the not knowing and finding an appreciation for whatever it is that connects us, and i know it is something invisible, it’s worthwhile because it makes you feel less alone. And that’s really what we’re all hoping to do anyway.
On the subject of physicality, I notice you’ve made Maureen intensely tactile. She’s always gripping at belts, and scrunching up these beautiful pieces of jewellery as she inspects them. How did you work that in as a Maureen mannerism? Why does she do that?
I think Maureen’s attracted to things that she’s ashamed to be attracted to. So she’s aggressive with them. These really delicate necklaces, she’s so taken by them but she’s feeling guilty about it, so she almost wants to harm them. Do you know what i mean?
Not personally, but sure.
Because she’s not the most self-assured person and she has so many aspects of herself that don’t typically go together, finding a balance in that is kind of the struggle of the movie. There’s one side of her that’s purely animalistic and very feminine and really just embodies... She’s like a tigress. She’s like a really sensual, immediate, impulsive animal, but there are also other times where she’s so moored by thought and those defences go up immediately. And those defences are very hard and very masculine and androgynous because she misses her brother. She’s half a person and she’s trying to emulate him. It’s like there was a strength that he had that she doesn’t have without him, and she’s trying to do an impression of him in order to feel strong and it’s just not her. It’s sad to watch that kind of thing, it’s clearly just somebody that’s trying to hide.
You’ve played a lot of celebrity assistant roles lately, with this, Sils Maria, and also recently, in the Woody Allen film. Are you referencing relationships that you have with people who work with you?
Yeah, it’s funny role reversal. I know that job inside out. But I don’t have a personal shopper. That’s not a very common job. [Grabs at blazer] These clothes that we wear to press conferences and red carpets and stuff, they’re all lent to us. I don’t have people going out and buying opulent elaborate pieces for me for my own collection, it’s an interaction with that artform which is temporary and within the context of promoting a movie.
Some celebrities seem to use fashion as an escape, or a bit of armour, for want of a better word. You seem really connected to the clothes you wear, though.
Absolutely, I think when clothes really can do their job, they’re the opposite of armour, they can make you feel like you don’t want to hide, and you’re the true version of yourself in the right outfit.
Some people don’t have much interest in it, and some people don’t have very defined taste. A lot of actors really just don’t care, so they hire people that do, to help them. But me? I really like it. The reason I’m not ashamed of that is because it’s coming from a really true place. I don’t find it to be superficial at all. I think that when I put on the right garment I feel like a truer version of myself. I feel there are stories to tell with clothes, and when you find people that feel the same way, it’s really fun to work with them.
I think it’s pretty obvious when there’s the opposite of that - it’s obvious when people are drawn to that world because they want attention. I don’t want to look good because I want everyone to stare at me; I want to look good because I want to feel like myself. It’s about feeling like you, and clothes can help you achieve that.
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Wednesday 13 November, 10:00PM on SBS World Movies (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)
Genre: Drama, Horror
Language: English, French
Director: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Benjamin Biolay
What's it about?
Maureen (Stewart) is a young American in Paris making her living as a personal shopper for a celebrity. Also, she may have the psychic ability to communicate with spirits, just like her twin brother, Lewis, who recently passed away. Maureen soon starts receiving mysterious messages coming from an unknown source. From Olivier Assayas, director of Carlos, Irma Vep, Summer Hours and Clouds of Sils Maria.