Director: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Sigrid Bouaziz
Length: 1hr 50m
Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper is one of the most enigmatic, unsettling and challenging films of the year so far. It is also one of the very best. One of those rare films that never lets you settle when watching it, Assayas never gives the audience what it wants, what it expects of the film. Just when you think you’ve worked out what kind of film this is, you are wrong-footed again. Genre-defying and unquestionably odd, it is a film focused on broad themes and ethereal presences, yet simultaneously very narrowly on one woman and her personal crises.
Kristen Stewart plays Maureen, a twenty-something American living in Paris and working as a “personal shopper” for an impersonal fashion star. It is a job that requires her to remain quiet and ignored whilst doing all the clothes shopping for a woman whose reputation rests on her appearance. This nicely feeds into Maureen’s feelings of disillusionment with her job and her life, far from success and far from happiness she lives an unfulfilled life of “waiting”. What she is waiting for is where the supernatural element of the story kicks in. Maureen suffers from the same heart defect that killed her twin brother Lewis. A step closer to death than most of us, the pair were mediums who believed they could communicate with the dead. Having made a pact to send each other a sign from beyond the grave, Maureen hangs around the genuinely creepy family home hoping for the spirits to arrive. Things take a turn from the sinister when Maureen then begins to receive text messages from an unknown source.
This all sounds nicely set up for a straightforward ghost story but Assayas has made something far, far away from straightforward. For stretches, he goes down the ghostly-scary-floating spirit route, then he hits us with some stalker-thriller, then he just quietly observes as Maureen’s mounting personal strife builds up so that we are at the point of full-on character study. This shouldn’t really work. What I have described is a film that frustratingly doesn’t know what it wants to be; here, however, Assayas knows exactly what he wants to give us and refuses to let something as trivial as convention get in the way.
The mélange of genres works for several reasons. One is obvious – it’s Kristen Stewart. She was the best thing in Assayas’ at-times superb Clouds of Sils Maria and here she is mesmerising in a demanding role. She is in virtually every scene so carries the burden of selling each element of the plot, whilst convincingly weaving them together. Some of the supernatural moments could have sounded hollow or fake but in her supremely talented hands, they convince. She is brilliant too as a lonely, grieving woman whose psyche may or may not be cracking; her twitchy hands and palpable lack of belonging ensures that in her presence we never settle.
Assayas does not just have Stewart, but his own directorial talents to thank for holding together the film. He glues everything together by keeping a consistent tone of uneasiness and, no matter what the focus, always offers something wholly compelling. He keeps his camera moving and dedicates plenty of time to the score, allowing his film to remain kinetic and his audience never comfortable. The film’s mysteries are all the more intriguing because we have to ponder them as we move. He also never forgets to keep things gripping, adding a dash of playful Hitchcockian tension as the texts from Maureen’s stalker pile up when she switches on her phone.
The film also works because it’s all so damn intriguing. Not just a film full of interesting themes, watching it is in itself fascinating as we try to work out what we are supposed to focus on – what it all means, whether it’s all real or not. The text messages are well-used by Assayas to effectively remove the identity of her stalker entirely (a comment on the perils of modern media itself, perhaps). Is someone actually threatening her? Is Maureen’s cracking psyche just producing it all as a manifestation of her guilt and paranoia? Perhaps it’s her own demons talking back at her? It is even worth a thought that she is having a dialogue with her own illness. Then of course there’s all the business with the spirits, the mediums, belief, cynicism, the afterlife. Assayas and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux wonderfully juxtapose the colours and feel of Maureen’s search for spirits with the bustling Paris outside, mirroring the clash of two worlds in Maureen’s life and debates about the dead in general. Can Maureen really speak to the dead? Is it all a trick of the mind? Is this just her way of coping with grief? Is she just desperately looking for some individual form of hope and connection in her unfulfilled life? It is almost exhausting to list everything you could discuss after watching Personal Shopper, which is astonishing because the film never feels like it’s trying to force you to think or push weighty themes down your throat.
With something so idiosyncratic, it is inevitable that most people find some exception with it. Hardly likely to score big box-office, there are some issues to be taken with the filmmaking too. Most notably, one thread is dropped suddenly and left feeling somewhat superfluous, with little character development given when the plot may have demanded it. Then again, this turns the focus clearly and solely on Maureen, ensuring that she as a person and Stewart as an actress rise above the rest of the material, showing at the film’s simplest heart a woman alone, touched by death and struggling to cope.
Like Clouds of Sils Maria, it does feel a bit too drawn-out, but it’s worth it for a thrilling final scene. It perhaps gives us the clearest clue as to what Assayas has been aiming at all along and it is an emotional moment to end on, with the music over the end credits providing emotional heft and meaning too. Personal Shopper is one of those films that leaves you wanting to applaud, feeling in those final moments like you and every other person in that cinema have shared a great experience. It may not be to everyone’s tastes but Personal Shopper is fascinating, gripping and challenging. It’s a reminder of what cinema can do and why we keep going to the pictures.