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Olivier Assayas on Fears His Pandemic Movie ‘Suspended Time’ Would ‘Come Off as Bizarre’ and Refusing the ‘Hollywood System’ (EXCLUSIVE)

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Olivier Assayas, the celebrated French director of “Clouds of Sils Maria” and “Irma Vep,” is making his Berlinale competition debut this year with “Suspended Time,” his most personal film to date.

Speaking to Variety ahead of the movie’s premiere at the Berlinale, Assayas says the film retells his experience during the lockdown and is based on his personal diary.

“When I was writing this diary, I felt that despite my anxieties and doubts or fears, it was an idyllic period, to be confined in the countryside,” he says. “It was a time where we believed in a form of utopia and as soon as society got back in action, it dissolved.”

Narrated by Assayas and woven with archival material, the comedy stars Vincent Macaigne as the director’s alter-ego, Paul, a well-known filmmaker who is confined with his music journalist brother Etienne (Micha Lescot) and their girlfriends Morgane (Nine d’Urso) and Carole (Nora Hamzawi), in their childhood home in the Normandy countryside over a sun-drenched spring.

“Suspended Time” marks Assayas’ first film since 2018’s “Wasp Network,” a spy thriller starring Penélope Cruz and Edgar Ramirez, and his follow-up to “Irma Vep,” an A24-HBO limited series starring Alicia Vikander.

In “Suspended Time,” Assayas revisits the lockdown era with nostalgia and humor.

“I had the impression of living something historic and I wanted to keep a record of it like David Hockney did in his painting ‘The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020,’” says Assayas, who cites Hockney many times in the movie. Hockney was, in fact, confined near Assayas’ family home and depicted the blossoming of nature despite the lockdown in his painting. In a way, “Suspended Time” is a companion piece to Hockney’s painting, Assayas says.

Assayas also experimented with a hybrid narration in “Suspended Time” to stay as close to reality as possible.

“I had never shared so much in a film,” Assayas says. “I had never imagined that I would take such an extravagant risk to make a film in my childhood home, and I feared that it would come off as bizarre. But I also felt that filming in that home allowed me to make that leap into autobiography and comedy.”

The director, who is highly private and isn’t one to appear in a tabloid in spite of his fame, says he’s always kept “an absolute separation between the movie world and his private life.” In “Suspended Time,” he finally “transgressed this forbidden rule.”

Although the film is highly personal, it resonates because of the universal nature of the experiences Assayas describes. “I have faith that the further we dive into what’s intimate, the more we go toward something that is shared and universal,” he says.

Like his 2016 film ”Personal Shopper,” “Suspended Time” is also about ghosts — more particularly the ghost of his father, the French filmmaker Raymond Assayas aka Jacques Rémy, who owned the house in which the film unfurls.

There’s also a French New Wave vibe in “Suspended Time,” which Assayas attributes to the influence of Éric Rohmer’s cinema. “Rohmer was attentive to seasons, to nature, and he also filmed in a very light manner and quick pace, like the way we made this film, in the ‘Rohmer format,’” he says.

Assayas is one of France’s very few directors to have worked with Hollywood stars, including Kristen Stewart, who made two films with him. Kristen won a Cesar Award for her supporting role in “Clouds of Sils Maria,” alongside Juliette Binoche, and went on to star in “Personal Shopper,” which also competed at Cannes.

“When I met Kristen, I immediately had the impression that she had a unique potential as an actress but it was underutilized, as if she was holding up too much, or was too restrained,” Assayas says. “So when we worked together with Juliette [Binoche], we let her be free and tap into her inner feelings, and it just liberated her. I didn’t do anything more than opening that door in her.”

But Assayas has also experienced some setbacks. What was meant to be his first Hollywood film, 2015’s “Idol’s Eye” starring Robert De Niro and Rachel Weisz, fell apart shortly before the scheduled start of production after financing for the film vanished.

Going forward, Assayas says his goal is to make international films that are based in Europe.

“I don’t dream of making movies in the Hollywood system the way it works today,” he says. “I’d rather have the best of both worlds, the artistic freedom and the choice of great actors that I can access as long as I film in English.”