Dir. Olivier Assayas, released 17th March
Having previously worked alongside Juliette Binoche in 2014’s Clouds of Sils Maria, Kristen Stewart is once again cast by French director Olivier Assayas for Personal Shopper. Written and directed by Assayas, the film is equally naturalistic and peculiar.
Set in Paris, Maureen (Stewart) is a young, American personal shopper who sources clothes and jewellery for a wealthy (and self-absorbed) socialite and model in Paris. Forbidden to try on the clothes and frustrated with the attitude of her employer, Maureen navigates the world of fashion with a bland disinterest, “it helps pay my rent and lets me stay in Paris” she later explains. There are more than a few similarities here to the Hollywood PA Stewart played in The Clouds of Sils Maria.
Maureen is also, however, a medium who, heartbroken by the loss of her twin brother Lewis, seeks to make contact with the dead. She suffers from the same heart condition as her brother yet, like him, is not afraid of dying: they each made a pact that whoever passed away first would send the other a message from the beyond. Cynical as Maureen is, she spends the night in Lewis’s old house, waiting for a sign. Her grief is later exploited by an unknown character who sends her suggestive and intrusive text messages.
Personal Shopper is both sinister and stylish and transcends the boundaries of typical genres. The highlight is undoubtedly Stewart’s understated protagonist, who carries an authentic sadness which provokes a genuine sympathy from the audience. Stewart carries the film alone, being central to every scene in a way which begins to feel intrusive as the narrative takes more disturbing directions. Despite the ghosts and the creepy mobile stalkers, the real theme of Personal Shopper is grief and Stewart provides a truly impressive depth of emotional intelligence. The hand-held camera work and gritty, everyday shots of down-town Paris help to further emphasis the mundane disappointment of Maureen’s life.
While it has generally been categorised as a psychological thriller, the thrill itself is in little supply within this slow-burning plot. Scenes inside Lewis’s house, in which Maureen attempts contact with ghostly figures are genuinely creepy, not least because they jar with the realist nature of the rest of the drama. The eerie creeks and dripping taps which punctuate the opening of the film are more successful representations of the supernatural than the less ambiguous depictions of ghosts which come later. The film works best when it leaves more to the imagination.
Personal Shopper has indeed split audiences, having initially prompted boos from screenings in Cannes in 2016, it later received a standing ovation with Assayas going on to win best director at the festival.
The problem is that the different strands of plot within this film never really intertwine. The frustration Maureen feels towards her self-centred employer, the odd flirtation which develops between the protagonist and her unknown messenger, the desperation she feels with her late brother’s lack of contact from the beyond: each narrative runs parallel to the other never really overlapping. Personal Shopper is unsure what its main focus should be, jumping from ghost story to sad tale of loss to murder mystery and even delving into horror towards the end. This makes the film feel disjointed at times, with some plotlines building towards a climax that never really materialises.
For all the scripts obvious faults however, Stewart’s central performance invokes enough intrigue to sustain and provoke viewers.