Being so different than the norm, Olivier Assayas's ghost story will polarize viewers, but will captivate those willing to listen
It was a bit of an internet meme for a while, remember? Remember when hating on Kristen Stewart was cool? How everyone hated her simply for playing a bad character in a series that just happened to have blown up? Remember how cruel we were? If anything, this re-emergence of Kristen Stewart as a bona fide indie darling is the exact sort of “fuck you” that we all deserve for all those years of abuse. After taking a bit of a break after 2012’s conclusion to the Twilight Saga, “Breaking Dawn – Part 2” dropped, Stewart began to focus a bit more on independent film, though she had done a few during her stint as Bella Swan. Stewart headlined and had supporting roles in smaller hits, like “Camp X-Ray” and “Still Alice,” which she gained critical praise for, but it was Olivier Assayas’s “Clouds of Sils Maria” that brought Stewart her first piece of international acclaim, establishing herself as the first American to ever win a César award (the French equivalent of an Oscar) for the film. Since then, Stewart has stuck to smaller indie film with great success. Now, two years later, Stewart has reunited with Assayas for “Personal Shopper,” a film that debuted with a bit of controversy.
Premiering at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, a festival known for its harsh treatment of films, it was the first film to be lauded with boos upon its first showing for international critics, while also being showered with applause in its second screening. Coming out of the festival, many didn’t know how to feel about the prospects for “Personal Shopper.” Even after seeing the film, I still can’t concretely comment on whether or not the film is a unabashed masterpiece or not. All I know is that, flaws and all, “Personal Shopper” is an entrancing experience.
Maureen (Kristen Stewart) is an American living in Paris working as a personal shopper for a high-profile model, Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten). Maureen is in Paris after the death of her twin brother, Lewis, who died three months prior in Paris. Maureen and Lewis, both self-identified mediums, promised to send each other a sign when one of them is to die, to which Maureen seeks out. As Maureen searches for signs around Paris, the veil between her world and what seems to be the next are blurred as she begins to receive communications and circumstances that she did not expect or want from the mysterious entity.
It’s possible for a movie to be well-made overall, and yet still rest squarely on the basis of one element. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (US version) had Rooney Mara leading the film, just like “Moonlight” had Barry Jenkins’s astute direction, and just like how “Personal Shopper” has Stewart as Maureen. Sure, “Personal Shopper” might work with another actress in the role, but Stewart brings this unique energy to Maureen that would not have been found by any other actress stepping into the role that fits her wonderfully. She is quiet, daring, serious; everything that Stewart is known for being in her best work. Though, unlike Stewart’s other work in similar indie films, Stewart refuses to fade into the background of the setting. Even against the cosmopolitan Paris setting, Stewart shines through as the shining beacon of “Personal Shopper,” playing its game meticulously with a sense of understanding of the material that I wish I could’ve gained upon a first viewing.
“Personal Shopper” is that type of film that mainstream audiences love to hate: the complex drama. This film doesn’t lay everything out in the table in the slightest, leaving many realizations made throughout the film a bit cloudy upon the film’s abrupt conclusion. This deliberate move made by Assayas makes “Personal Shopper” a bit difficult to approach from the outset, but lures you into its strangely complex web to discover the ties and truth of the elusive nature of “Personal Shopper,” and even then, most will find it a difficult task to fully understand everything Assayas has gone for in this work, which does work against itself a bit. Films like “Memento” and “Inception” carved out über-complex plot lines with fairly definite conclusions to be made from it, while “Personal Shopper” purposely leaves much of the plot ambiguous, which might present itself to be maddeningly vague to those seeking something a bit more concrete.
Having been able to see the film on its opening night of its extremely limited release in New York City, I was able to see and meet Assayas at the screening at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. Not only did Assayas fully commit to making the answers to the film as vague as possible, he also opened up his peculiar way of looking at the film, particularly in its peculiar editing style. At first, “Personal Shopper” and its style of fading each individual scene to black left me a bit cold at first, but Assayas’s way of explaining the novel-like structure he went for in the film makes this chapter-like setup a really nice way to break up the sometimes dense material of “Personal Shopper.”
And I haven’t even touched on how beautiful “Personal Shopper” is. Much like “Clouds of Sils Maria,” Assayas has a way of making the most out of the sometimes peculiar settings of his films. Focusing itself on the Paris fashion scene, “Personal Shopper” has an undeniably slick and chic look about it, but also uses many elements of horror filmmaking that makes the entire experience as uneasy as it is beautiful. Utilizing the style of older horror cinema, “Personal Shopper” finds ways to evoke films such as “The Exorcist” and “The Omen” without ever outright paying homage to these films, as “Personal Shopper” refuses to follow any sort of convention whatsoever, including its influences.
“Personal Shopper” won’t please everyone, or even a majority of audiences, but the sheer originality and unpredictability of the material makes this modern twist on a classic ghost story worth scoping out. Not everything works, more specifically regarding its intentional vagueness, but it’s a film that, despite its imperfections, seems to be calling me back for at least one more viewing, if not more. Assayas has crafted an aesthetically beautiful and emotionally resonant ghost story that is impressive on its own merits, but seek to transcend the boundaries of genre with Stewart’s simply magnetically powerhouse performance. In 2017, if nothing has convinced you thus far that Stewart is shaping up to be one of the finest actors of her generation, “Personal Shopper” is here to do it for the unconverted.
Directed by: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielsen Lie, Ty Olwin, Hammou Graïa, Nora von Waldstätten, Benjamin Biolay, Audrey Bonnet, Pascal Rambert.
Runtime: 105 minutes
Rating: R for some language, sexuality, nudity, and a bloody violent image.
Now in limited release, coming soon to Charlotte-area theaters.
IFC Films and CG Cinéma present, “Personal Shopper” by Olivier Assayas, a co-production with CG Cinéma, Vortex Sutra, Detailfilm, Sirena Film, Arte France Cinéma, Arte Deutschland/WDR, with the participation of Arte France, Arte Deutschland/WDR, Canal+ et Ciné+, with the support of the Czech Tax Rebate, the Czech Minority Co-Production Fund, and the Tac Shelter of the Belgian Federal Government via Scope Invest, French distribution: Les Films du Losange, International sales: MK2