PERSONAL SHOPPER (2016) review
written by: Olivier Assayas
produced by: Charles Gillibert
directed by: Olivier Assayas
rated: R (for some language, sexuality, nudity and a bloody violent image)
runtime: 110 min.
U.S. release date: March 10, 2017 & March 17, 2017 (limited)
If you’re like me and were enraptured by Kristen Stewart‘s supporting role in writer/director Olivier Assayas’ 2014 film, “Clouds of Sils Maria“, in which she played a personal assistant to a movie star, than you’ll be interested in “Personal Shopper”, which reunites the actress and filmmaker once again. In his latest film, Assayas casts Stewart in the titular role, this time making her a personal shopper (ahem, specified assistant) to a celebrity model. It’s as if Assayas is fully aware that Stewart’s character in his last film was a highlight and decided to make a film starring Stewart in a very similar occupation, this time in a lead role, allowing her standout once again. That’s all I knew as I went in with my own biases of appreciating Stewart and Assayas and the result is an unexpected genre mashup that won me over despite its flaws.
Maureen Cartwright (Stewart) is an American living in Paris, working as an assistant and personal shopper to celebrity fashion model, Kyra (Nora Von Waldstätten, also in “Clouds of Sils Maria“), whose responsible for selecting the wardrobe and retrieving various wardrobe items and articles of jewelry from designers in Paris and London (which she’s forbidden from trying on herself). However, there’s more to Maureen than her current occupation. She’s also a medium who’s been asked to make sure an old house is “clear” before its prospective buyers can move forward. This is where Lewis, her recently deceased twin brother had lived, someone who was also a medium and a spiritualist and shared a heart defect with Maureen as well. Lewis promised his sister that he’d give her a message from the afterlife. So, she waits for a sign.
Before we see her do any actual shopping, Maureen is spending time in this old house, walking around dark corridors and empty rooms, hesitantly calling out, “Lewis?”, when she hears a sound near her. This is at the start of the film, so we don’t know who Lewis is and thankfully at no point does Assayas bother with exposition. He trusts his audience just as much as he trusts his actors to find their characters. Throughout the film, we wonder if her skills as a medium are legit or if she’s convinced herself she’s something she’s not.
Maureen has admitted to her boyfriend, Gary (Tyler Olwin), via FaceTime that she hates her job as a personal shopper, how it’s getting in the way of what she’d rather be doing. Is that ghost-hunting or drawing in a sketch pad? Maybe she doesn’t even know and that’s okay, because watching Stewart struggle as Maureen – with emotions, who she is and what is happening around her – is the real treat here. Gary suggests she join him in Oman, where either the beach or the mountains beckon, but she maintains she doesn’t want to leave Paris, until later on when she does.
Another mystery occurs during the second act of “Personal Shopper”, while Maureen is on a train ride to London for her job. She starts receiving mysterious texts from an “Unknown” sender. A correspondence occurs, often with knowing observations and personal questions that unnerve Maureen. We assume, as does Maureen at times, that she’s being watched and some stalker is playing games with her. We assume it’s a he though she never finds out, despite asking, but all along this delayed text back and forth is surprisingly riveting. You would think the use of a text exchange in a movie would be anything but mysterious or nerve-racking, but Assayas tightens the uncertainty and tension of the situations as the builds suspense.
There are plot elements and supporting characters that are left underdeveloped and used as sort of a red herring in the story. Maureen witnesses the shocking aftermath of a murder that left me wondering why it was even included. Maureen seems surprised to meet Kyra’s boyfriend, Ingo (Lars Eidinger , another “Clouds of Sils Maria” alum), while they are both in her apartment, waiting to speak with her. His inclusion later on is confusing and never all that convincing. Maybe I was missing something from my initial viewing, but these scenes felt like Assayas was trying to shoehorn too much into his film.
Other elements that were intriguing, but didn’t quite work for me were Assayas’ inclusion of Maureen doing some research as she goes about her daily activities. She’s seen looking up the seance-inspired art of Hilma af Klimt and an old film by Jules Verne that includes a seance, but none of it seems to be all that informative or enlightening to her medium approach, nor are they incorporated later on in the story. These additions to the story could be considered flaws, since they don’t really go anywhere, but I still found what Maureen was doing intriguing.
Does Assayas ever show Maureen encountering an apparition? Yes. There is a sequence where a spirit shows itself to her and it’s quire unnerving – not because of the economical visual effects, but due to Stewart’s body language and terror. That scene has been replaying in my mind, along with a couple other instances where things may or may not be what they seem. Assayas never employs cheap scares and hasn’t made a full-blown horror flick anyway. “Personal Shopper” could be considered a psychological thriller, as some are calling it, although it certainly subverts expectations viewers would bring in regards to that subgenre. At no point did I expect some kind of huge supernatural turn of events or payoff, because it seemed obvious that’s not what kind of film this is, thankfully.
I guess that’s the biggest surprise was how my own expectations were subverted by the film. I thought I was going to see Kristen Stewart as a personal shopper and, to be honest, that was enough for me. Sometimes, just looking at who’s in a film and who’s directed it can sway me enough to give me all I need to know – I’m hooked. But as I watched “Personal Shopper”, I realized there’s more going on here. I’m still not sure what to make of the film overall, but it intrigued me throughout and left me with some memorable visuals and though-provoking discussions. That’s pretty much what I’ve come to expect from the French filmmaker.
When “Personal Shopper” premiered last year at Cannes it was booed by critics and then applauded by a general audience viewing. While I can understand that initial response, I can’t take the booing seriously since movies from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch have received the same response. I’d say Assayas is in good company.