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One of the things that fascinates me the most about your movies is the fluidity of what we’d perceive to be “imaginary” versus real. Knowing that audiences — particularly, say, American audiences — are used to cinema that totally separates the two, how do you plan and structure the slips between “reality” and “symbol?” All of Clouds of Sils Maria feels like linear realism until just one specific moment really changes that. Whereas in Personal Shopper, those slips are all over the place.
I like the idea of playing with the expectation of the audience — I think it’s entertaining, but some audiences have been angry about it! “Why are you not going in the direction where you’re expected to go?” I’m not going in that direction because it’s boring! I think it’s more exciting if you play along — it’s like a game. So either you want to play the game or you don’t, but if you want to, it’s fun, it’s exciting.
Personal Shopper references the art of Hilma af Klint [an occult artist who was recently re-discovered — and kind of beat more famous artists to the punch with her pioneering use of abstract images]. Did you know a lot about her work and story conceiving this movie?
I was playing with the elements of the story when I bumped into her. It was a shock; I had no idea this was going to be part of the film. It came out of research, of being interested in modern painting. It was such a surprise to discover this artist in the sense that, in 1906, there was this woman who was doing that stuff, and she’s one of the great woman artists of the 19th century. It also completely transforms the gender narrative; she was kind of suppressed — no one suppressed her, but she did not want her work to be known. She consciously made the choice of not exhibiting it.
Didn’t she demand that it not be shown until 20 years after she died?
She felt it was so weird that no one would understand it. But she was totally convinced that her hand was guided by spirits; otherwise you would not have dared to go in that direction. I was really obsessing about her, and how all of a sudden her work is out there, and you’ll have to rewrite the history of modern painting in a certain way. No one had access to it [until 1986]. It’s like exhuming the skeleton of a dinosaur, and you have to rewrite the narrative. And I thought it was stimulating, and I wondered, ‘can I transcribe it in film?’ Is it possible to put into a film the importance of connecting with an artist?
Between this and Clouds of Sils Maria, you seem to really like putting Kristen Stewart on trains. Is there weight to the repetition of that image/location for you, or is it total coincidence?
I like the idea that she had to go to London from Paris, because when you go to London, you’re going underwater, and then you have the metal detectors, and then you have a lounge. All of a sudden the act of traveling to London was more interesting than maybe traveling to Brussels.
It’s like she’s entering another realm.
When I started writing it, I realized, ‘This is going to echo with Clouds of Sils Maria.’
Between Maureen and Stewart’s character in Clouds, there’s also the phantasmal quality of invisible labor in these characters’ assistant positions. Was there a reason you chose celebrity and service work as a framework for a ghost story?
I’m interested in Kristen the person — that’s what inspires me, the very specific modern energy she has, the complexity of her inner dynamics, I think it’s absolutely fascinating. But I’m not interested in Kristen the movie star, which is some kind of abstract creation. So I think that in the movies I’ve been doing with her, I’ve needed to get rid of the celebrity thing and throw the burden of it on another character. So the celebrity issue is not in the way when you’re looking at the film.
How has working with an American actress in these central roles changed the angle with which you portray globalization?
I was really interested in this ghost world, and I liked the idea of shooting in Paris with people who are hardly in Paris — who are foreigners floating on the surface of the city. She’s within the flow of Parisian life, but at the same time she’s exterior to it, because she’s just passing by. She doesn’t have roots or a history there, she’s there because that’s where her brother lived. And she’s waiting for a sign in that alien environment. In the same way that Kiera, her boss, has a flat in Paris. But she spends like five minutes a year in that flat — maybe she meets her boyfriend there and that’s the only use of the place. I like the idea of this layered modern society that’s floating on reality, and all of sudden the reality is very similar to virtual reality. I didn’t want to exaggerate it, but it’s part of modern life — and it’s interesting trying to capture it.
As someone your age, as opposed to Maureen’s, you surely have a different perspective of contemporary isolation and communication than someone who grew up without having to transition into our new mode of communication.
I suppose so — but in a sense that I am more aware of how it has transformed us. If I had to say what I feel has changed in the human experience in the last quarter of a century, it’s certainly the use of digital communication has changed us. I’m not interested in text messaging, but rather how text messaging has changed us, our perceptions of ourselves and the people around us, and how being connected with a network genuinely changes our identity. However I’m showing it in this film is informed by my own experience of being on both sides of it.