Overview: A personal shopper in Paris seeks direction from the afterlife. IFC Films; 2017; Rated R; 105 minutes.
The Elephant: Personal Shopper, a French psychological thriller about a young woman working on the edge of the fashion industry, made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival last year. Kristen Stewart is the star and her performance is, quite frankly, incredible. Reputationally, Stewart carries baggage because of her role as Bella in Twilight, for better or for worse, and audiences who haven’t seen or appreciated her smaller indie roles (Adventureland, The Runaways) like to discredit her for what they perceive as a lack of enthusiasm. But Stewart has more than come into her own since her young adult breakthrough and, if anything, Personal Shopper is further hard evidence that she can handle a daunting script and a character with a chasm-like depth. Director Olivier Assayas has said he wrote Personal Shopper for Stewart, his latest muse who formerly inspired and starred in Clouds of Sils Maria. And the first glimpse of Stewart in Personal Shopper pulls the stale breath from the lungs and blows them back up again. “I know that face, I know those eyes,” was my first thought. Stewart’s Maureen is an impeccable reflection of a woman dealing with grief. Stewart carries the character evenly and with incredible grace even at her most raw and vulnerable.
The Truth: Maureen is a personal shopper for a high-profile client in Paris, and it appears she’s been there for some time. She’s steady and confident, displaying a hawk-like eye for products, cuts, sizes, and style. She’s good at her job, and she knows what she wants. Onscreen, Stewart is constantly reacting to her setting in the most minuscule ways. Her fingers are touching, mouth reacting, eyes darting constantly while she processes her physical and emotional environment. Maureen expends this extra energy because of the recent loss of her brother, Lewis, who suddenly passed away of a heart attack just months earlier. Stewart displays impressive range here, with an authenticity that’s profoundly moving whether she’s quietly crying or “getting things done” with her jaw hard-set.
It’s easy to covet Maureen’s job, at least at first. She rubs shoulders with interesting people, has access to quality products, and makes good money shopping for someone else. But Maureen doesn’t love it for the same reasons some of us don’t love our jobs, “I spend my days doing bullshit that keeps me from doing what I want.” she quips when asked if she likes her work. It doesn’t help that her employer is a pain in the ass who has little regard for Maureen’s time and commitment. Through this admission, the glamour of Maureen’s job is shattered and the gap between us is narrowed. When she’s offered a higher-profile position at a fashion magazine, she firmly and clearly declines because of a lack of freedom. It’s refreshing to see a character with these feelings and values portrayed as also having strong character, work ethic, and ambition for her own life, even if it doesn’t look like what others might expect. Until she can plan her next move, Maureen keeps at her work, paying her rent in Paris, waiting for a sign beyond the grave.
It takes time to process and grieve, and the method and experience is different for everyone. Maureen stays to come to terms with the death of her twin brother. That’s what makes this a sort of coming-of-age story without the cheesy heart that’s usually served with that recipe. Maureen is in a purgatory state, dealing with her grief and waiting for a sign on when and how to move on. She is constantly in waiting. Waiting for news about her heart, affected by the same condition that lead to her brother’s death, waiting for a sign from said brother, waiting for direction. She’s stuck and unable to grasp the truth: that she might never be satisfied with any sign she receives, and that ultimately she is the captain of her own ship and she decides which course to chart.
The Darkness: Maureen is also a medium. Or at least, she and her brother shared some gift for accessing the spirit world. In lesser hands, this convenient twist mght topple easily, but Assayas takes a persuasive and artistic way of employing the narrative turn and investigating its discovery. History is given through the story of Hilma af Klint, one of the first abstract artists who claimed to be influenced by spirits, and other professionals who dabbled in the spiritual realm. Though she’s not really sure what she believes, Maureen remains open and interested. She speaks about intuition and vibes, a heavy sense of empathy and feeling for other people, and those around her talk of being deeply intuitive of others, understanding things left unspoken. The people around Maureen take her seriously, and so it feels natural to do the same.
In stark contrast to the streets of Paris and brightly-lit shops, Maureen trawls her brother’s dark and empty home seeking evidence of the afterlife. These scenes of interactions with the spirit world are tense and intriguing. Sparse shots of scratched crosses on walls, and smoky ghosts hovering had the audience audibly sucking in air. The tension is heavy and remains throughout the film, mixing with that heavy fog of emotional exhaustion Maureen constantly displays. Mysterious harassing texts from a domineering figure turn her to paranoia, drawing her into conversations about fear and what is forbidden and leading the audience through an ever-growing mystery that never quite reveals itself but still manages to fully satisfy.
Overall: Personal Shopper is a fresh and relevant movie, gripping and tense all at once. Assayas has delivered a stunning and strangely moving film that serves as a platform for Kristen Stewart to access the depth of her talent.
Featured Image: IFC Films