A Simple Guide to the Complicated Cinema of Olivier Assayas

Pin It
Personal Shopper, 2016
Personal Shopper, 2016(Film still)

As his new TV series Irma Vep premieres in the UK, take a quick tour of the French auteur’s work – from the story of a grief-stricken personal shopper to a tale of espionage in the anime porn industry

Since the beginning of his career, Olivier Assayas has displayed a boundless curiosity about the capability of film. The French filmmaker changes genre, style and form frequently, often within the same project, and all with the same enquiring nature. There’s little slack across his entire catalogue. After shadowing his father, writer-director Jacques Rémy as a child, Assayas began his career as a film critic and his understanding of the mechanics of film thoughtfully informs his later work. As cinema continues to be led down the garden path by Marvel and DC, Assayas’s thoughtful, impudent filmmaking is proving increasingly invaluable, and his recent reimagining of Irma Vep showed how easily he can shift gears to the world of modern television.

What sets Assayas apart from his peers is not just his versatility but his ability to draw so immediately and generously from his personal history. Across his four-decade-long career, he has weaved in his upbringing, his relationships and his mistakes, positioning himself adjacent to his films much in the way a film critic would. In this sense, Assayas’s films are almost like an extension of his criticism and he has rarely been lured by Hollywood, only breaking with this when he can use the industry’s own tools to critique it. 

As Irma Vep premieres in the UK, AnOther dives into five of the French filmmaker’s most accomplished works:

Cold Water, 1994

Assayas’s affinity for the passage of time has recurred throughout his work, with almost every film of his concerning the influence of the past and potential of the future. What’s most fascinating about Cold Water, his third film and his breakthrough, was that this affinity was assigned to Assayas. Cold Water was originally devised for the anthology TV series Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge, where each creator involved – including Chantal Akerman and Claire Denis – was asked to craft a film about their adolescence using the music they listened to at the time. 

Assayas, having lived through the upheaval of France’s 1968 protests as a teen, focuses on the unruliness and passion of youth. It’s a heady, poignant drama about two young lovers with a predictably excellent soundtrack plucked from Assayas’s younger years, featuring the likes of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen.

Irma Vep, 1996

After exhuming his 1996 classic for his own delightful HBO TV remake, Irma Vep is Assayas’s triumph. By attempting the difficult act of paying tribute to both Hong Kong and French cinema – specifically, the work of Louis Feuillade – it’s almost a surprise that Irma Vep comes together so beautifully. 

Yet Assayas has always been adept at difficult tonal balances and Irma Vep is a strikingly unique piece of filmmaking; strange and layered and latterly given greater texture by the director’s relationship to it. Assayas had a brief marriage to his lead in the 1990s, the incomparable Maggie Cheung, and he builds this into the 2022 series to moving effect, bringing closure to a project that is arguably his most successful, both personally and professionally. 

Demonlover, 2002

After Sentimental Destinies, Assayas’s staid three-hour period piece, the director decided to follow it up with 2002’s Demonlover. In what might be one of cinema’s greatest about-turns, Demonlover tells a tale of industrial espionage in the anime porn industry. As you would expect, it is one of the director’s weirder movies and was crafted with a very 2000s sensibility, enlisting darlings of the era like Chloë Sevigny and Gina Gershon. 

Demonlover sees Assayas at his most depraved and cynical, offering up an uncommonly pessimistic thriller that yields gripping, messy results. What starts as your everyday hentai business transaction quickly descends into something far more unsettling and Demonlover benefits from robust performances by Sevigny and Gershon as well as Connie Nielsen and Charles Berling. The questions it asks about our desensitisation to violence, sex, and the body governed by capitalism are fitfully answered, but it’s difficult not to be caught up in the director’s nightmarish technoscape.

Clouds of Sils Maria, 2014

With her richly deserved Oscar nomination for Spencer earlier this year, the “wait, wait, Kristen Stewart is actually a great actor” narrative finally came to a close. 2014’s Clouds of Sils Maria was one of Stewart’s first post-Twilight ventures and it’s perhaps not unsurprising that the always-prescient Assayas was the first filmmaker to furnish Stewart with roles befitting her talent. 

Here, Stewart plays the personal assistant to a veteran actress (played by fellow Assayas regular Juliette Binoche) who finds herself cast opposite an up-and-coming young star in a revival of the play that made her famous. It’s familiar territory for Assayas – he can’t get enough of a remake/revival/reimagining – but it’s easily his most intelligent film, and consequently one of his best. Ghosts of the past take centre stage in Clouds of Sils Maria and there’s no finer pairing to lead it than Binoche and Stewart.

Personal Shopper, 2016

The bizarre, eerie Personal Shopper baffled audiences when it bowed at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival and declared itself as Assayas’s most elusive work. Initially booed at its first Cannes screening, the Kristen Stewart-led supernatural drama later garnered a five-minute-long standing ovation at its official premiere. Like Assayas’s best, it is a Rorschach test of a movie – is it a ghost story, a thriller, a romance, or all three? – and continued his winning collaboration with Stewart. 

Stewart takes the role of a supermodel’s personal shopper struggling to cope with the death of her twin brother. Personal Shopper is an oddity in Assayas’s oeuvre and likely the closest we’ll ever get to a horror from him, walking the fine line between out-and-out chills and psychological drama. Rewardingly, it possesses one of Stewart’s most assured performances, and Assayas further proves that no other filmmaker has as strong an understanding of her fey, knowing screen presence as him.