Filmmaker Olivier Assayas on ghosts, real and imagined

The French filmmaker talks about his roots, his obsessions and his new film Personal Shopper, which stars Kristen Stewart.
Director Olivier Assayas, left and actress Kristen Stewart, pose for photographers during a photo call for the film Personal Shopper at the 69th international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Tuesday, May 17, 2016. (Lionel Cironneau/Associated Press)
Listen to the full episode52:31

Filmmaker Olivier Assayas grew up in the French countryside, the son of an Italian-Jewish father and a Hungarian mother whose house was a gathering place for friends and family from around the world. Assayas' work draws inspiration from his multinational upbringing to create films that transcend geographical and cultural boundaries.

Personal Shopper, starring Kristen Stewart, is about a woman who is a personal shopper and a spiritual medium in Paris.

Assayas' latest film, Personal Shopper, had its North American premiere at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. The psychological drama starring Kristen Stewart marks the director's second collaboration with the actor, after the critically acclaimed 2014 film Clouds of Sils Maria. In Personal Shopper, Stewart plays Maureen, an American in Paris whose day job consists of running errands and buying expensive clothing for a wealthy German celebrity. At night, she spends her time in an abandoned house, attempting to communicate with her dead twin brother. 

Olivier Assayas spoke to Eleanor Wachtel during the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.

How his parents' pasts sparked his imagination

I grew up in the French countryside, the son of immigrants. My father was technically French, but he had no roots in France. He was like the first Assayas to settle in France. The others had been living all over the place. My parents had within them a world that was much more fascinating than the French present I was living. My mother was a Hungarian aristocrat, so she grew up and lived in a very privileged world that belonged to the 19th century — it was completely abstract to me. It was the same thing with my father's past — during the war he had lived in Argentina and Uruguay, places I had never set foot. I think that the world of my parents, the missed world of my parents, the lost world of my parents, was what fuelled my imagination. I had to put images on those places, on those memories. 

Believing in ghosts

Sometimes when you're a filmmaker or a writer, you're also an actor, in the sense that you live another life. You become someone else. When an actor plays Hamlet, he becomes Hamlet in a certain way. When I was writing Personal Shopper, I dealt with characters who believe — who are spiritualists. So I'm with them. We don't believe in ghosts. We kind of know they do not exist. But then at the same time, we constantly live with ghosts. We live with the people who were dear to us, who were close to us, our best friends, our parents — they are not there anymore and we think about them all the time and they somehow stay alive with us. So we live with a lot of ghosts, ultimately.

In the mid- to late-19th century, there was a very solid belief that there was another world, and that we could communicate with that world. Because so many things were happening — there were incredible breakthroughs in science. All of a sudden, you had X-rays. You had radiotelegraphy. All of a sudden, things that had been magical, that were considered part of the impossible, uncanny, magical world — they were actually happening. So why not communicate with the dead? There are some great people, great minds, who have been convinced of that. 

Women and men in the modern world

I think that during my lifetime, the deepest thing that has changed in the fabric of society is the status of women. I think that there is something extraordinary in the way modern societies have realized that the space given to women was limited, and that all of a sudden, the world has been changing. Women have been doing things, they have struggled to reinvent themselves in the modern world. So I think that there is no subject that's more modern or relevant in terms of what modern society is.

The other side of this, which I've been obsessed with, I think, is how machismo has become evil. I think the evil of the world has to do with the insecurity and the loss of balance of young men who are threatened by the empowerment of women. And I think that a lot of what is happening that's ugly in modern society — murders, killing sprees, wars — it has to do with this insecurity of men and their will to impose their macho egos on modern society. That idea has become an obsession, and it's very deep in the fabric of whatever I do.

Olivier Assayas' comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast interview: "Track of Time" produced by Henryk Lipp, written and performed by Anna von Hausswolff. 

Watch the trailer for Personal Shopper: