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Director Olivier Assayas’ films are obsessed with public image and female celebrity, including his latest, ‘Personal Shopper’

Kristen Stewart, left, and writer-director Olivier Assayas
(Amy Sussman / Invision / Associated Press)

“World cinema” can be a murky category, but it aptly describes the films of French director Olivier Assayas, whose narratives flow effortlessly across borders of geography and language. He’s an erudite cinephile and former critic, drawing equal inspiration from the French and Taiwanese New Wave, and his films knowingly manipulate the genre codes of film noir, horror and coming-of-age story.

His globalized thrillers (“Carlos,” “Demonlover”) crackle with a liberated post-punk energy, and his subtle dramas (“Summer Hours,” “Something in the Air”) demonstrate a piercing emotional acuity. Nobody films a better party sequence.

These films — which are being celebrated at Cinefamily this month, alongside the release of his latest film, “Personal Shopper” — are fluent in an international lexicon of cool. The best of them are restlessly modern, coolly erotic, obsessed by the communicatory possibilities of new technology. An Assayas film drops the viewer into frenetic activity without pausing for explanation or translation, and spirits us to far-flung locations even when the plot doesn’t seem to demand it. “Carlos” was filmed on location in nine countries. “Personal Shopper” begins on a train in France, and ends in a desert house in Oman.

“Personal Shopper,” which opened March 10 is a seductive ghost story about death in the age of the iCloud, but it’s also a deeply disorienting film whose pleasures are deepened by familiarity with Assayas’ previous explorations of the border between person and persona. In the films he has made with ex-wife Maggie Cheung, Asia Argento, and now Kristen Stewart, Assayas is interested in celebrity not for its box office potential, but for the ways it attaches to (and detaches from) its physical bearer.

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Kristen Stewart in a scene from "Personal Shopper."
(Cannes International Film Festival)

Like his American compatriot Steven Soderbergh, Assayas likes to cast actors in order to summon a wide range of associations. He doesn’t ask them to disappear into the character, but to bring along their celebrity baggage.

Shot on the fly between larger productions, Assayas’ adventurous 1996 art house breakthroughIrma Vep” was conceived around Cheung, whom he called “an up-to-date version of an old-fashioned movie star.” In this meta-movie, a washed-up auteur (played by Jean-Pierre Leaud of “The 400 Blows” fame) casts Hong Kong action star Cheung (playing herself) in a seemingly misbegotten remake of Louis Feuillade’s 1915 silent crime serial “Les Vampires.” It doesn’t go well. Cheung can’t speak French, she’s besieged by unwanted romantic interests, and the filmmaker’s unlikely concept begins to seem increasingly untenable.

But at the film’s astonishing climax, Assayas draws upon the physicality that made Cheung an icon, capturing the creative synergy that can emerge between a director and performer who fully commit to the same experiment. By combining Leaud with Cheung, Assayas points toward a merger of French and Hong Kong cinema, the intellectual and the physical, and a vital new strain of international filmmaking.

In 2004’s “Clean,” another film he built around Cheung, she plays a self-centered junkie who, after the death of her rock singer husband, attempts to rebuild her life and reclaim her estranged son. Drawn to resemble Courtney Love, the character is hard to love, but, as critic Howard Hampton notes, the film is a test of the durability of a star image. The film engages our emotions, because our heroine’s humanity resonates through the faded glamour.

Working with the Italian actress/model provocateur Asia Argento, Assayas’ 2007 filmBoarding Gate” adopted a trashy B-thriller aesthetic that many critics found too easy to dismiss. In this kinky espionage caper, full of false fronts and sleek urban interiors, Argento’s role in the convoluted plot is to shuttle around the globe, play-acting a series of shady scenarios, persuading men to cave into their desperation. The movie’s considerable interest hinges on Argento’s character’s inconsistent ability to simulate emotion.

Recently, Assayas has found a new muse. Stewart is a major movie star, someone whose personal life provokes fevered, invasive speculation. For two films in a row, Assayas has cheekily cast Stewart as an assistant to a female celebrity, someone who looks askance at stardom, greasing the wheels of celebrity without ever inhabiting it. The two newest films are full of identity games, implicit and explicit hauntings, and sudden disappearances.

In 2014’s richly textured “Clouds of Sils Maria,” she works for an international film star played by Juliette Binoche. The two decamp to a secluded mountain house to run lines for a play in which Binoche’s character is grudgingly playing the older woman’s role, rather than the seductive younger character she originated on stage 20 years before; immediately, the borders between reality and drama begin to blur. For this supporting performance, Stewart became the first American actress to win France’s Cesar Award. Assayas calls her “the best actress of her generation.”

“Sils Maria” and “Personal Shopper” pick up on Stewart’s adherence to what critic Shonni Enelow has referred to as “recessive” acting, in which “many of today’s most popular young actors communicate to us, in various ways, that they don’t want to perform.” Working against Binoche in “Sils Maria,” Stewart is able to raise the stakes of generational conflict by disinterestedly intoning the play’s scripted dialogue.

Later in the film, Chloe Grace Moretz appears as a troubled, paparazzi-hounded young American movie star looking to migrate to riskier material. She will ultimately star in the role that Stewart’s character has been rehearsing, the one that Binoche’s character had played long before. Her affinities with the real Kristen Stewart’s celebrity image are immediately apparent, and Stewart’s character — who consumes tabloid gossip so her boss doesn’t have to — is the one who argues on behalf of her talent.

In “Personal Shopper,” Stewart plays a recently bereaved young American in Paris, trying on and purchasing clothes for a mostly unseen celebrity boss. In Stewart’s most layered performance to date, her biggest scenes are conducted as text message conversations with an invisible, potentially supernatural partner.

Assayas exploits the actress’ stated distaste for celebrity PR by writing her two roles that are driven by fantasies of escape — whether that of disappearing into a role, or simply disappearing.

calendar@latimes.com

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