If you’ve been paying attention to the movies, you probably know the name, “Kristen Stewart“. She broke out in the public consciousness by starring in a little franchise called Twilight, a series ostensibly about everlasting hetero-love that refused to acknowledge the value of female agency. So, thanks for that, pop culture, a generation of parents is now responsible for undoing again the sort of social conditioning for young women that the latter half of the twentieth century set out to dismantle. The fact is that the latent misogyny in the vampire shlock-buster isn’t Stewart’s fault: you’re given a script and, unless you’re Edward Norton or Russell Crowe, you stick to it, no matter how awful it is. Stewart’s still-young career began with a successful-yet-junky YA property, which means that she has financial carte blanche to spend the rest of her working life rehabilitating her image by teaming up with Woody Allen, Kelly Reichardt and, most fruitfully, French art film director, Olivier Assayas. Stewart won the first Cesar (read: French Oscars) awarded to an American on Assayas’s last film, Clouds of Sils Maria, so it makes sense that they’d regroup for his newest, Personal Shopper. Get caffeinated and put on your smartypants, because it’s going to be a baffling ride.
Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten) is a massively wealthy celebrity who doesn’t have time to buy all of her Cartier- and Chanel-branded fashion items, so she’s hired out the work to Maureen (Stewart), the personal shopper of the film’s title. Maureen spends her days traipsing about Paris charging two $2,000 handbags to her boss’s card (because, you know, options) and taking day trips to London to buy next-level shoes from boutique vendors who operate out of chic flats. Maureen kinda-really hates her job–when Kyra’s not in the wind, she’s incredibly rude to her employee–but Maureen needs her job to keep her in France while she waits for a sign from the afterlife from her recently deceased twin brother, Lewis, who perished suddenly of a congenital heart defect that Maureen shares. Both Maureen and Lewis are mediums, individuals who are sensitive to the spiritual realm, and Maureen cannot recover from his death until she gets confirmation that his spirit is at rest. This involves her staying overnight in a creepy haunted house in the Paris suburbs, owned by Lewis’s French girlfriend, Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz), who is selling it to a young couple but needs Maureen to vet it to ensure there’s no ghosts hanging about, including Lewis. Then Maureen starts getting texts from an unknown entity that seems to have omniscience over her every move. To say Maureen is merely a “personal shopper” undersells just how thinly spread this lady is.
Assayas is a director who eludes classification at every turn, seemingly in complete control over his material (he’s almost always the solely credited writer on his films) while leaving the viewer entirely unsure of what it all means, other than the fact that there’s a lot of meaningfulness going on. He makes films that have concrete action and story beats but in a way that is not always clear as to how they tie together. With Personal Shopper in particular, the editing will cut off a scene abruptly, just when you thought the ball was starting to roll, instead fading to black and moving on to Maureen appraising a haute couture sheath, even if in the previous moment she was being tormented by a ghostly presence. The film has plenty of incident and little in the way of a recognizable plot, leaning rather towards a portrayal of a woman approaching the end of her rope, in a style that is more than a little reminiscent of that of Alfred Hitchcock or George Cukor. You start to wonder whether Maureen herself isn’t already a kind of ghost, meandering through life strictly for the benefit of other people around her and seemingly stuck in a fog. The few characters other than Maureen do little to disabuse the audience of this notion, treating her as though she is a specter that lingers in their lives and needs simply to move on. There’s also that niggling issue with her heart that is poised to kill her at any moment, unless she avoids “intense emotions,” to quote her aloof doctor, a tall order for someone with impending doom closing in on multiple fronts.
Stewart is in nearly every frame of this film, and she holds it up on her brittle shoulders. Maureen is a strung-out mess of hair and skinny jeans, subsisting on coffee and late-night calls to her boyfriend, journeying in Oman, the light at the end of her gloomy tunnel. Her character is hardly a far cry from the morose presence of Bella Swann, but Stewart invests her with the twitchy nervousness you might expect from a person in her situation, even down to the scattershot way she composes text messages on her iPhone. She has little occasion to talk, other than when she provides direction to the army of salespeople during her duties as personal shopper, and when she does it is in a hurried, harried tone, as if to speak is to make her even more vulnerable than she already is. She is simultaneously an open wound and completely cagey, clearly in pain but closed off from the few people who would try to help her. Stewart gives a riveting, subtle performance that further cements her position as one of the most talented actresses of her age.
See Personal Shopper with a friend, because you will need someone to talk you through what you just saw. In its stubbornly oblique way, it is a film about grief and how being young and rudderless can exacerbate tragedy. It may not always be clear exactly what is happening at a given moment–the film keeps you guessing past the end credits–but Stewart and Assayas will keep your eyes glued to the screen.
Horror | IFC Films