From the cinematic meta-comedy of “Irma Vep” to the revolutionary autobiography of “Something in the Air,” the slippery French auteur has long been obsessed with the ways in which technology is used to assert and embolden the past. Peerlessly cool and deceptively casual, Assayas’ body of work is unified by the grace with which it reconciles a shrinking world. His films blur the borders between countries, between centuries, and now even between dimensions as they examine the role that memory plays in determining who we are, both individually and together.
In “Summer Hours,” three far-flung siblings are forced to negotiate their collective identity when their mother bequeaths them the rustic family estate and a laundry list of keepsakes that have always lived inside. In “Clouds of Sils Maria,” Stewart’s first collaboration with Assayas, middle-aged actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is as haunted by her own legend and tormented by the next generation of starlets. “Personal Shopper” may be the first time that Assayas’ has explicitly engaged with the supernatural, but all of his movies feel like ghost stories.
So much so, in fact, that “Personal Shopper” might seem a touch on the nose, like David O. Russell making a film about Martin Scorsese or Wes Anderson making a film about tweed. Assayas laughed at this suggestion: “Well, movies are about ghosts! Especially old movies. People became aware of whatever cinema was in the late ’50s, early ’60s, when the first generation of silent actors were gone, and, all of a sudden, you had these movies that were just full of specters. So film has always been the land of the dead.”
Even Maureen’s interactions with the living begin to assume a morbid gloss. She and her far-flung boyfriend speak exclusively over Skype, and every conversation feels like a seance. “It’s like they’re conjuring each other,” Stewart said. The line between the living and the dead feels hazy and permeable, so when Maureen suggests the mysterious texts she’s receiving might be from her brother, it’s surprisingly easy to imagine she could be right.
“People feel so entitled to communication in the digital age,” Stewart offered without a perceptible trace of judgement. “I think mourning has probably changed because we’re so in each other’s faces no matter where we are geographically. Now imagine someone passes away and you’re like, ‘What do you mean I can’t talk to them? I can always talk to them.’”
I don’t have to imagine. My dad died in December — two months later, I excitedly called to tell him that I had just flown to San Francisco, surprised my girlfriend (who was there visiting her parents), and asked her to marry me. The phone rang three times before I remembered that he wasn’t going to pick up. The next night, jet lagged and a little tipsy from airplane wine, I did it again. It wouldn’t be the last time, though I would eventually learn to catch myself before hitting the “call” button. It’s never been easier to connect with someone, and it’s never been more difficult to stop trying. At a time when presence has become so hard to define, I suppose it’s inevitable that absence has become similarly hard to recognize.
But of course, it would have been gauche to say any of that out loud.
So I adopted a different strategy. I tipped even my most innocuous questions with the poison of personal experience, hoping — as I have to assume all writers do — that these palpable but unspoken emotional undercurrents might inspire my subjects to think: “This guy gets it.” I entertained fantasies of Assayas and Stewart sneaking a cigarette on some private terrace after our interview, desperate enough for small talk that they talk about me. “That guy gets it,” Stewart would say between disaffected drags. “Yes, what you say is true,” Assayas would mutter, his eyes focused on something across the street. For a brief moment in an endless press tour, they’d feel understood.
“I don’t know,” Stewart exhaled, snapping me out of my daydream. “I haven’t had too many friends pass away, and my grandma’s a hundred years old. I haven’t dealt with death a whole lot, and, if I have, it’s been sort of peripheral. I can’t imagine going back and knowing that my entire text thread with this person is still there and they’re not. People’s Facebooks become memorial-type things. I think having this data in our hands all the time, depending on how you approach it, can be really scary because it’s a rabbit hole. It gives you an opportunity to know more than you could remember without it. Is it better to let things go and be affected by them, or always have it there to dwell on?”
For a very long moment, I worried that Stewart expected me to answer, as if that question hadn’t been weighing on me for months. Finally, she let me off the hook: