Overview: A woman who works as a personal shopper for a model deals with the death of her brother. Les Films du Losange; 2016; 110 Minutes.
Reunion: In Clouds of Sils Maria, Writer/Director Olivier Assayas helped elevate Kristen Stewart to a critical acclaim that had previously been stubbornly withheld in spite of (or perhaps due to) her popularity. Like her character Valentine, a secretary to a famous aging actress, Stewart was initially overshadowed by the performance of costar Juliette Binoche. Eventually, within both the film and its critical reaction, Stewart and her character stole a majority of the spotlight. So it makes sense that she would return for the director’s follow-up, the spiritual successor, Personal Shopper. As Maureen, Stewart again finds her role on the outskirts of wealth and fame, only this time, as the titular profession, catering to the every whim of a despicable model. Her role in the fashion industry touches the high culture nerve of materialism, before the film becomes a ghost story that challenges Maureen her to deal with what is under the surface.
Confusion: Reeling from the recent death of her brother, Maureen is forced to confront her grief. With callbacks aplenty to Assays’ last film (a sequence on a train appears to extend the one in Clouds, for example), Assayas commits to either not fixing what isn’t broken or breaking it as an experiment. The film, like the supernatural entity which disappears each time it seems to be within Maureen’s grasp, can be seen as a ghost of its authorial predecessor.
Assayas proves especially non-committal when he conceals the truth in his film. Is his mystery a figurative representation of grief and envy, or is it a literal narrative set in motion by real events? In one particularly disorienting choice, he repeats a scene, once for each interpretation, purposefully allowing his audience to choose their own. It’s an extremely bold move that makes deciphering a singular reading impossible. The film is challenging and intelligent, intentionally confused and elusive, asking a lot from the minds of its audiences but promising a large return on investment.
Identity and the Spirit: In spite of Assayas’ vision being particularly rebellious and inevitably divisive, his direction is technically assured and confident. The horror/thriller aspects of the film all sound kitschy on paper, yet are well executed and prove genuinely unsettling. Perhaps most fascinating, however, is Assayas’ extension of horror to technology: channeling our shared and innate fascination that compels Maureen to continue to reply to the disembodied texts and we hang on to every single minute in recognition of both the grief and the innate obsession with textual conversation. Maureen, timid and non-confrontational in more personal exchanges, is courageous when texting, a testimony to technological communication obscuring personage and identity. Later, specific examples (within the ecto-ramblings of Victor Hugo and the surrealist art of Hilma al Klint), challenge the nature of technological advancement as seemingly impossible but very real while spirituality is generally eschewed as phony. With each additional element, Personal Shopper becomes a film of personal layered language forms and their influence on separate identities.
Stewart’s performance here makes her talent undeniable. She channels powerful expressions of fear and insecurity. A majority of the scenes find her alone, yet she still acts so well in solidarity that the unseen spirits feel perfectly believable, as if there was truly somebody else in each frame. It is an incredibly vulnerable performance, one that strips away the machinations of her role and reality to reveal something more primal beneath.
Overall: It is understandable that the film was booed at its first press screening at Cannes. Not for lack of any quality, but because of how relentless it is in denying its viewer from any easy conclusion. Personal Shopper is a thrilling atmospheric movie that refuses peace obtained by cheap narrative means. While it may not prove immediately satisfying for some, it leaves a last and growing impression.