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Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep
Maggie Cheung in Irma VepOlivier Assayas via Zeitgeist Films

How to get into experimental director Olivier Assayas

Your guide to the French auteur with a punk attitude who has just made a film with Kristen Stewart about texting ghosts

A new Olivier Assayas film could mean all sorts of things. After 17 features, the French auteur is still as unpredictable as ever. Take Personal Shopper, his thriller with Kristen Stewart. The premise suggests a ghoul can keep in touch with a living person via text message. K-Stew, in mourning for her dead twin, is soon perturbed by the endless notifications on her phone. This isn‘t how “ghosting“ is supposed to work.

With Personal Shopper not reaching UK and US cinemas until March, there’s still time to get acquainted (or reacquainted) with Assayas‘ intimidating body of work. An experimental artist with a punk attitude, the director is yet to make the same film twice, and along the way he‘s collaborated with the very best: Isabelle Huppert, Maggie Cheung and Sonic Youth, just to name a few. So, if you‘re unsure of where to start with Olivier Assayas, here are some suggestions, divided into categories and genres.


Irma Vep

Irma Vep, the best entry point, is a cutting commentary on the French film industry‘s reluctance to evolve. Maggie Chueng (who Assayas later married and divorced) plays herself, a Hong Kong superstar flown to Paris for a pointless remake of a silent vampire movie. The director (Jean-Pierre Léaud aka French New Wave’s poster child), though, has no understanding of Asian cinema beyond its surface coolness.

Beyond satirizing boneheaded cultural appropriation, Irma Vep is also pure shape-shifting fun: Assayas will, at times, switch genres within a single scene. For instance, one sequence sees Cheung, suddenly energized by Sonic Youth, stealing jewels in a catsuit, then heading to the rooftop. It’s Assayas challenging artists to take what‘s there and make something new.


Clouds Of Sils Maria

Echoing Irma Vep‘s meta casting, Clouds of Sils Maria stars Juliette Binoche as a highly respected arthouse actress wishing to make amends for the shameful X-Men film on her IMDb page. This encompasses a return to theater, which Binoche preps for by vanishing to the Alps with her tortured assistant, played by Kristen Stewart. The film is thus a somber precursor to Personal Shopper; note how Binoche asks, “You promised – no ghosts.“

Soon, the film and its play-within-the-film blend into one, and it‘s Binoche versus Stewart in a spiteful succession of mind games. Look out for the coolest car scene in recent memory: Kristen cruising to Primal Scream’s “Kowalsi (not Rolling Stones), then evaporating into the clouds.




Little makes sense in Assayas‘ stylish neo-noir about competitive anime porn studios. And that‘s mostly intentional. Set across Asia, America and Europe, the transatlantic head-scratcher tees up Connie Nielsen and Chloë Sevigny as rival spies, along with Gina Gershon as an entrepreneur entering the market for Japanese 3D erotica. All that‘s certain is Sonic Youth‘s original score fits the mood.

Nominated for a Palme d’Or, Demonlover subjected stuffy Cannes audiences to lengthy hentai sequences – and like Personal Shopper, its end credits were met with boos. Who knows what viewers found more shocking: lurid peeks into the deep, dark web, or the depiction of desensitized internet users?

Personal Shopper

With the fashion industry and afterlife colliding in one eerie shebang, Personal Shopper ranks among Assayas‘ oddest inventions. Nevertheless, due to the Kristen factor, it‘s likely to be his biggest international hit. And deservedly so. As the film unravels, its audaciousness grows and grows: it‘s an existential drama, a psychosexual horror and a trippy tech thriller, all wrapped up in one 35mm ghost story. It also boasts a career-best performance from Stewart, with her face the centrepiece of each scene. Plus, there’s the spookiest text messaging and most nuanced thumb acting every committed to film.



Cold Water

If Cold Water is true to life, then no wonder Assayas became a filmmaker. Two 16-year-olds, Christine and Gilles, find romance in mutual rebellion, but when she‘s caught shoplifting and sent to a mental institution, the couple escape to the woods. Away from spying parents, they bask in an outdoor bonfire and dance to rock ‘n‘ roll records, with the heat of the embers felt in close-ups.

Nevertheless, this fiery passion can‘t permanently glue the relationship, and Assayas depicts first love as a torturous, nonsensical emotion. A director can only make this kind of film once in their career. Essential viewing.

Late August, Early September

In this messy scattering of relationship tales, there’s plenty that rewards and frustrates, although that simply reflects the complexity of its impulsive, young characters. In 13 months, the ensemble (Mathieu Amalric, Nathalie Richard etc) experience grief, heartbreak and writing rejections – the full gamut of emotions.

Fans of director extraordinaire Mia Hansen-Løve (who‘s now married to Assayas) will take interest in her debut acting role as a young romantic (and Stereolab fan) tumbling through a tragic love affair.

Something in the Air 

The autobiographical nature of Something in the Air, effectively a Bildungsroman for Assayas, tracks a wannabe painter in the 1970s whose artistic pretensions differ from his politically minded friends. On the brink of adulthood, should his future involve canvasses or tearing down the system?

Assayas is, like David Lynch, a director who dealt with paintbrushes before cameras, and here he suggests the urge to create can‘t be tamed. (K-Stew in Personal Shopper also happens to be a painter.) Ultimately, the film‘s romanticism and its actual existence indicates Assayas passion for the arts.



In between Irma Vep and Clean, Maggie Cheung divorced Assayas and became Wong Kar-wai‘s leading lady for In the Mood for Love and 2046. Not too shabby. Clean, though, was a wild reinvention: Cheung plays Emily, a grungy heroin addict rebuilding her life in Paris after a prison sentence. Even Kar-wai fans may not recognize her.

With a dead boyfriend and a son she‘s forbidden from visiting, Emily can only find solace in music – hence cameos from Metric and Tricky – and she later records a song with Mazzy Star. Cheung deservedly won Best Actress at Cannes and, in a very classy mic drop, promptly retired from the business.

Summer Hours

In the opening act of Summer Hours, acting legend Édith Scob has a major request: when she dies, her children must sell her antiques to a museum. The rest of the film details the administrative and emotional hardship of passing on such possessions when each rare vase and pricey painting is equally rich with personal memories.

While it‘s inarguably of the real world, there’s also shared ground with Personal Shopper: the ensemble cast, including Juliette Binoche and Alice de Lencquesaing, are escaping the ghost of a deceased relative and learning the real value of art along the way.



Because Assayas writes all his films, there‘s still a thematic overlap between his diverse projects. An unwise starting point, due to length, though, would be Carlos (2010), his six-hour biopic of Marxist terrorist Carlos the Jackal; depicted as a rock star, he and his gang at times resemble a band on tour. That time could also be spent tracking down Assayas‘ impossible-to-find early features: Disorder (1986), Winter’s Child (1989), Paris Awakens (1991) and A New Life (1993).

If you can tolerate period dramas, Sentimental Destinies (2000) does at least have Isabelle Huppert. On the other end, erotic thriller Boarding Gate (2008) stars Asia Argento as a deadly hitwoman; it’s fun and instantly forgettable. Elsewhere, there‘s Noise (2006), an abstract rock-doc collaboration with Sonic Youth, Jim O‘Rourke and others.