Personal Shopper

The haunting of Kristen Stewart

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

No matter what sort of movie you’re expecting from Personal Shopper, you’ll get it. You’ll also contend with three others, and then the movie you first expected will turn inside out.

So all that awaits the receptive viewer, along with a dangling modifier of an ending guaranteed to satisfy virtually no one. Even so, this is one of the most intriguing pictures of the year, a genre-hopper of unusual gravity. It’s also the latest proof that Kristen Stewart has the goods for a long-haul acting career, with all sorts of directors, playing all sorts of characters.

Personal Shopper comes from writer-director Olivier Assayas, based in France, who worked previously with Stewart on Clouds of Sils Maria three years ago. There she played a restless American assistant to an internationally famous actress (Juliette Binoche). Their increasingly fraught and emotionally loaded relationship led to a scene in the mountains where the Stewart character took her leave, suddenly and finally, in a cloud of mystery recalling Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura and a hint of a ghost story.

In Personal Shopper, hints are not enough. Stewart plays Maureen, an American making a hollow, silly living in Paris as personal shopper to a demanding high-fashion celebrity (Nora von Waldstatten). She’s perpetually sending Maureen off to Chanel or some other boutique for jewels, or shoes, and has a strict policy against Maureen trying any of her outfits on for size, or for wish-fulfillment fantasy purposes.

Maureen’s twin brother, Lewis, died just weeks earlier, the victim of the same “malformation” of the heart marking her condition. A spiritual medium, like her brother, Maureen exists day to day in a state of suspended animation, waiting for a sign from the beyond from her late twin.

A more conventional script would lay these details out, and then get to the first scene in the creaky old country home outside Paris where Lewis lived. Here, in a quiet, shadowy overture, Assayas takes us into the shadows straight off, where Maureen awaits a signal, a bump, anything. The plot stuff can wait for a while.

There are surprises, and while those who require full-on jump scares and methodical explanations may well hate Personal Shopper, the most effective stretch is also the most traditionally suspenseful. On a quick trip to London, after she’s made contact with some sort of ectoplasmic being in the old dark house, Maureen receives a text from UNKNOWN stating, simply: “I know you.” And then: “I’m watching you.” By this time Assayas has established just enough side characters—her late brother’s lover, played by Sigrid Bouaziz; her employer’s spurned boyfriend, a murmuring sort played by Lars Eidinger—for some legitimate guessing games. But Maureen wonders if it’s Lewis, teasing her from the beyond, making her question her own sanity, or holding her to the bargain the twins made before Lewis’ death.

Movies make frequent functional use in narrative terms of texting conversations, but Personal Shopper takes it to another level entirely. The nervous rhythm of these scenes is beautifully controlled, and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux makes every interior and exterior image a thing of unforced beauty. In many ways this is a tale of a young woman’s agitated grief, pure and simple, and Stewart’s wonderful and wholly persuasive as that woman.

At times, Personal Shopper is quite plain in what it’s showing us; Lewis’ spirit (or some other spirit) manifests itself by way of floating glassware and doors opening and closing on their own, as if Assayas were adapting a Paris-set revival of Harvey. Other elements are glanced upon or elided. I suspect Assayas could have gotten away with his ending with just a slight adjustment in emphasis; as is, it’s abrupt enough to betray a hint of insecurity.

Still: I was grateful for the gentle, watchful discombobulation. The movie barely hangs together, but there’s a kind of magic in that word barely when you’re in the movie’s thrall. At one point Maureen’s doctor advises her to avoid “intense physical efforts and extreme emotions.” Assayas is an artist with a natural aversion to extreme emotions, but the feeling in Personal Shopper, fleeting yet distinct, gives Stewart everything she needs as an actress.

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