D: Olivier Assayas / 105m
Cast: Kristen Srewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielsen Lie, Ty Olwin, Nora von Waldstätten, Benjamin Biolay, Audrey Bonnet, Pascal Rambert
Maureen Carmichael (Stewart) is an American living in Paris whose twin brother, Lewis, has recently died of a heart attack, the result of a congenital defect that Maureen has as well. The pair made a pact when they were younger that if one of them died, the other would wait to receive a sign that the deceased had passed on to an afterlife. Maureen is committed to doing this, and she stays for a night in a chateau that her brother purchased before he died. She experiences strange phenomena while she’s there but isn’t sure it was Lewis that was causing it. She returns to the chateau again and this time she has a supernatural experience that is terrifying, but which doesn’t seem to involve her brother.
At a loss as to whether or not she should stop waiting for a sign from Lewis, Maureen focuses on her work as a personal shopper to a celebrity called Kyra (von Waldstätten). Maureen spends her time in exclusive boutiques, handpicking clothes and shoes and accessories so that Kyra always appears glamorous and ahead of the fashion game. In many ways it’s a thankless role, but it pays well enough for Maureen to continue waiting for Lewis to “get in touch”. One day, after dropping off some items for Kyra, Maureen receives the first in a series of mysterious text messages from an unknown sender. The texts tease her into thinking that she may be conversing with a ghost, or some kind of mischievous spirit, as the sender seems to know a lot about her and the trips she’s making.
The texts also prompt Maureen into doing something that Kyra has forbidden her to do: namely, wear the clothes and outfits that Maureen has chosen for her. One night, Maureen dresses up as Kyra, an act that is emotionally fulfilling but which also has unexpected ramifications. A visit to Kyra’s apartment reveals a shocking surprise, as does a rendezvous with her anonymous texter, all of which leave Maureen wondering if she knows anymore what is real and what isn’t.
Part ghost story, part thriller, part reflection of celebrity culture, and part exploration of the nature of grief, Personal Shopper is a movie that comes laden with purpose and promise, a Gallic hodge-podge of ideas and themes that sometimes mesh seamlessly together, but which also prove frustratingly obtuse when clarity would have been a better approach to take. The narrative moves awkwardly at times between its trio of storylines – Maureen searching for proof of her brother’s existence after death, Maureen co-opting Kyra’s identity for her own as an outlet for her grief, Maureen dealing with her phone stalker – but at least gives each storyline equal weight, and provides Kristen Stewart with her best role yet. It’s a movie that attempts to say much, and for the most part it does so with skill and determination, but any messages it wants to send – like it’s unknown texter – don’t always have the depth to match their weight.
In exploring the nature and the need of Maureen’s sense of loss, Assayas keeps the focus on Maureen’s belief in an afterlife, used as much as a reason for her to persist as to exist, and as a doleful foreshadowing of the scenes where she’s plagued by text by an unknown admirer. These two storylines blend well together, and Assayas is on firm ground when he plays up the supernatural possibility that Maureen is in touch with a spirit (albeit one that seems remarkably human still). He exploits Maureen’s naïve gullibility, and Stewart’s guileless performance anchors the character’s desperate need to believe that her brother isn’t just dead. But while the question of the mystery texter’s identity is rarely in doubt – the clues are there – Assayas does what so many other directors have done in recent years, and shows the texts on Maureen’s phone, often holding the shot while we wait for each bait and response. If these scenes are meant to provide some much needed tension, then Assayas has badly misjudged his own sense of what works and what doesn’t, as they only serve to derail the narrative and undermine the visual acuity of the rest of the movie.
Ironically, the storyline that doesn’t work so well is the one that concerns Maureen’s job as a personal shopper. Offering a jejune commentary on modern celebrity culture, Assayas predictably makes Kyra a “monster”, and Maureen just a cog in the machine that keeps it all going. Despite her reservations about the job, Maureen is keen to remind the people she buys or borrows clothes from that she is the same size and shape as her employer, but affects a “best not” approach when encouraged to try on any of Kyra’s outfits. When finally, at the urging of her mystery texter she tries on one of these outfits it leads to an expression of physical pleasure that is impactful by virtue of its being so unexpected. But having Maureen dress up as someone else and finding fulfillment isn’t something that resonates as much as perhaps Assayas intended. Instead it’s a moment where narrative conviction gives way to unnecessary dramatic licence.
The muddled question of which is Maureen’s dominant personality aside, Personal Shopper is also a mystery that operates on two levels, with the supernatural aspects handled well but losing importance as the movie progresses, and the identity of the texter taking centre stage by the movie’s midpoint but fizzling out once Maureen makes her shocking discovery. By dovetailing these two elements, Assayas does make the bulk of the movie intriguing (until he reveals the truth behind everything), and while as mentioned before, they’re the movie’s strongest components, this is largely due to the atmosphere that Assayas creates around them, rather than any intensity that might arise naturally out of the material. It’s the same for the thriller elements that come into play late on: on a technical level they’re handled extremely well, but they lack a connection to what’s gone before and remain adrift from the rest of the material as a result.
Stewart gives easily her best performance so far, inhabiting the twin worlds of Maureen’s passive/more passive existence with skill and intelligence. Hers is a powerful study of a woman whose connection to the real world is as remote as the probability that her brother will make contact with her. It’s a trenchant, incisive portrayal, and Assayas exploits Stewart’s commitment to the character every chance he gets, shooting in close up wherever possible and getting the actress to express every trace of Maureen’s internal confusion. It’s Stewart’s movie, and she takes full advantage of the opportunity given to her. But unfortunately she remains, like the audience, subject to the narrative whims of the material, and Assayas’ random allocation of depth and importance to the material as a whole. This is definitely a good movie, but lurking somewhere inside it, there’s a potentially great movie that, like Lewis, is just waiting to be heard from.
Rating: 7/10 – a movie that is likely to leave many viewers scratching their heads in their efforts to derive satisfaction from its messy screenplay, Personal Shopper is a case of a movie taking two steps forward and then one step back in its approach to the material; Assayas and Stewart work extremely well together, but the French auteur has fashioned better movies in the past, and even though he won the Best Director award at Cannes (tying with Cristian Mungiu), this is not the best example of what he can achieve.