AFTER headlining the movie juggernaut that was the Twilight series, Kristen Stewart became one of cinema’s best-known faces and could have named her price and had her pick of Hollywood blockbusters.
Instead, she took a gamble and threw the film industry — and her own career — a curveball, departing the mainstream and signing up for quirky independent arthouse movies and obscure European dramas.
Her decision to do so comes as no surprise to one of the filmmakers who knows her best.
Acclaimed French writer/director Olivier Assayas has worked with Stewart on two of her best-received roles, 2014’s indie hit Clouds of Sils Maria and her new film, Personal Shopper.
The unconventional ghost story sees her play a recently bereaved twin, working as a personal shopper for a wealthy woman in Paris, who is waiting for a sign from beyond the grave from her brother. Stewart has been getting raves for her performance in the jittery English-language thriller, and Assayas considers her to be one of the best young actors of her generation.
“Kirsten is really the smartest person and she loves movies for all the good reasons,” he said. “She will move on and direct. She is really attracted to filmmaking and she is very ambitious and also she is incredibly honest and committed and I have been extremely impressed since Clouds of Sils Maria by her courage.”
The director was impressed with her attitude on the set of that film. “She would come to work on the set of a European, an indie movie, small budget, far away from home, no crew members or no entourage or whatever with her. We were not shooting in the most exciting location.
“Basically she was there as she thought she had something to learn from it and eventually from the European culture of filmmaking. She sensed there was more freedom there for her and I think she is defined by freedom. She is very independent. She is a free spirit. I really love that.”
Stewart’s collaboration with the top filmmaker certainly appears to be a beneficial one in terms of honing her craft. In Personal Shopper, she is a woman tormented by loneliness and grief, those famous features expressing a wave of emotions.
Given that his films often feature female characters front and centre and frequently examine the themes of public image and female celebrity, it perhaps comes as no surprise that Stewart — scrutinised for her every move by media and fans — should feel a connection.
Assayas said he wanted to work with her again since noticing her talent while filming Clouds of Sils Maria.
“I got to know her when we were shooting. I discovered her and I discovered her range shooting that film. Sometimes it was a bit frustrating because I felt I wanted to push it a bit further. The scenes did not allow for that. So I suppose it’s what gave me the desire to try and work with Kirsten on a more complex character.”
Though the character, Maureen, is rarely off her phone, she has a loneliness about her — a form of modern living that Assayas wanted to explore.
“When I started writing it I wanted to make a movie about a lonely character who found some kind of comfort in the world of ideas, of dreams of fantasies, in the contemporary way also the way we use images, internet and how we communicate.
“She needs to reconstruct herself. Very few people can really help her with that as she has to come to terms with the loss of her twin brother.”
She really loves her phone. “Don’t we all. I don’t know if we love it but it becomes part of us. I think we can’t really escape it. It becomes very difficult to escape it and I think it becomes an extension of our mind.”
His mix of smart thrillers like Carlos and Irma Vep and character-driven dramas like Something in the Air have made Assayas a highly regarded voice in world cinema, and he is a major star in his native France.
He agrees not only that he likes to make films that have strong female characters, but that it motivates him.
“I suppose that’s where I find my inspiration. How should I put it? I dislike so much the modern macho culture which I think is evil. I think its present in movies, in everyday life, in the way society is evolved.
“I’ve always had a sense that the most important thing happening in our time is how women have been reinventing themselves, and also based on values that I can relate to much more than I can relate to the crisis of machismo which is part of what filmmaking is about.”
Assayas has seen great change in his home country during his lifetime. As a child, he would travel from the French countryside with his father to take part in the protests in Paris in 1968. The anti-government protests began with students and spread into the workforce, paralysing France for weeks.
“I grew up in the countryside but I would go to Paris with my father. I have a few visual memories. The memories of hearing it on the radio, of feeling it. It’s something that stays with you. Gives you a sense that society is fragile, everything can blow up. It can go to the brink, a sense of being on the brink.
“The 1970s were really a moment of incredible freedom. The politics of the ’70s could be oppressive but at the same time there was a sense that everything could be reinvented. Everything should be questioned. There was nothing really to hold on to.
“When you grew up during those years it kind of stays with you. You keep that sense of freedom within you. It has a very profound influence on my work in more ways than one.”
Is he worried at the growth of more oppressive forms of leadership again? “I think it’s scary as hell, I really do. I don’t wear my politics on my sleeve, but I’m scared.”
While his next film will be set in the US, Assayas is not departing from his native cinema for good — he’s writing a small scale French film at the moment that’s set in Paris.
“I’m extremely privileged to be living and working in a film culture that is as vital as the French film industry.
“I think it has a system also in terms of supporting art films. So when I look at other countries and see the difficulty filmmakers have, I feel extremely privileged. But at the same time it can become a bit too cosy and I think what’s exciting about modern society is the way culture interacts.
“It’s always been extremely important for me to be back and forth with international cinema.”