My, my, two winners in one week; the surprise delight of the grisly horror show Get Out, this week the super-cool Kristen Stewart – among the most quicksilver of her generation’s performers – in Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, a shape-shifting, resolutely of-this-moment ghost story that features her in nearly every frame. She’s absolutely entrancing.
Though booed by some critics, the film won Best Director at last year’s Cannes Festival. The reason is, the film is mesmerising and perplexing, intelligent and silly.
My reviews like to pick and choose and in so doing bring your attention to interesting films, not just mainstream Hollywood fare which readers can assess for themselves from the massive publicity they generate. (I tend to avoid the leave-your-brains-at-home stuff.) Consequently this film is well worth a visit, the second collaboration between Stewart and Assayas. It follows Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), directed by the French auteur with whom the American star has most ingeniously raised her career.
In the earlier film, Stewart plays Valentine, the bespectacled personal assistant to Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) an internationally renowned 40-year-old star of stage and screen. In Personal Shopper she plays another assistant, one with a fat cheque book.
For a macho male such as I there’s a perverse thrill in watching Stewart so beautifully inhabit the role of a personal helpmate. The role – I’ve been that in earlier times to learn my trade – is part deferential, part gopher, and part smart organiser. There are moments you can challenge your mentor if you’ve the cojones and in their confidence.
All of us have had that sort of friendship where a pecking order is observed but broken respectfully because its based on trust, wary to let the first among equals have the last say!
This is a decidedly odd story of luxury labels and electronic ectoplasm. Here, Stewart’s character, Maureen Cartwright, is demoted to an even lowlier celebrity adjutant than in Assayas previous female-driven work.
Stewart plays an unwashed dishevelled American working in Paris, greasy hair, oversize pullovers, a look sported by Stewart herself seen in paparazzi shots. Maureen hopes to make contact with her recently deceased twin brother, with whom she shared a paranormal gift. American television is full of this pseudo-spiritual guff but presented at a basic level.
When she’s not waiting to receive signals from the undead, or at least in limbo between the plasterboard walls and the outer stone, Maureen dashes from one high-end boutique to the next for the fashion-fascist celebutante boss she says she despises. The ire of her eye is Kyra nicely played by Nora von Waldstätten.
Just before boarding the Eurostar to London for yet another mad-dash haute couture errand, Maureen appears to receive a message from the beyond: the first in a string of texts from an unknown source. They are all menacing in tone. The plot device elevates a phone to co-star. The iPhone clutched by Maureen becomes Stewart’s most significant screen partner in Personal Shopper, countless moments where she is seen holding it to her ear perplexed, or staring at the wee screen tremulous.
Exactly like Get Out, the premise is ludicrous yet has us believing it soon into the plot.
I can’t think of another Stewart vehicle, (fans will correct me) not even any of the films from the Twilight saga, in which the actress appears in every scene, often alone or as an anonymous figure in a crowd, an horrendous mental and physical stress for any actor. Likewise, I can’t recall a single close up. I may be wrong, but I think Stewart is in wide shot, or head and shoulders only. Is Assayas trying to show us isolation?
Anyhow, even when not speaking, which is a lot of the time, Stewart is highly watchable merely biking from arrondissement to arrondissement on her Peugeot scooter. (Note the brand plug!) This is pretty well a one character film.
From what I’ve read of Assayas, he’s an inventive filmmaker. His sinister global thrillers Demonlover (2002) and Boarding Gate (2007) also pivot on absurd plot points to plumb 21st-century malaise and disorder. Assayas wrote Personal Shopper, (and his earlier Irma Vep) expressly for their respective female leads, so, he has a penchant for alighting on a suitable actor and modelling his work around their public persona. And that’s where I have a problem.
The issue I have is with Stewart’s fame as a public celebrity. Because of it my perception, my ability to get into the drama, kept waxing and waning. In this supernatural tale the real phantom looming largest keeps crossing your mind, Stewart’s actual celebrity, the one we keep seeing on television commercials, a reflection made fast when Maureen surreptitiously tries on Kyra’s glassy-spangled Chanel dress – the very brand for which Stewart has been an ambassador for the past few years. Is this story about Maureen, or is it about Stewart?
And the sex? Well, yes, it’s a French film, so unlike so many American films in which the flesh scene is dropped in as brash commercial bait, the sex is erotic rather than soft porn.
Dropping off some finery at Kyra’s empty dwelling, Maureen tries on another of her employer’s haute couture concoctions, one with a harness and transparent bodice. This charged, forbidden act is made lubricious when Maureen begins to masturbate in Kyra’s bed. The actress loses herself pretending to be, however briefly, someone she’s not – that is, by acting. In plot this is a film about intimacy and sensuality.
Throughout all this and other scenes, Maureen looks for signs, for visitations from her dead brother. Some seem strong and positive, some seem weak and vague, and could be interpreted for something else. Could the text be someone following her, not a sign from another world?
Personal Shopper tries to articulate the closeness between solitude and loss of control. Assayas takes on a complicated brief: he stages the desperate solitude of grief, the practical solitude of the artist, the incidental solitude of the long-distance relationship, the professional solitude of the freelance solo employee. Maureen’s utter dependence on signs from the dead is the antidote to her tethering as an employee to the orders of a capricious employer.
In a way, it’s like what we observe every day, people everywhere checking their iPhones, the modern day child’s ‘sooky’ blanket, the comforter, a friend who tells us we’ve friends.
The frisson of loneliness is multiplied as we watch Stewart – who, in real life, surely must always be on guard against stalkers and predators – portray someone who thrills at violating the rules and sanctum of her own VIP boss. A film within a film.
I have a dictum about French films: when they’re good they’re superb. When they’re bad they’re pretentious. Assayas’s psychological thriller is neither, in my view, nor does it convey the sensuality I think he was hoping to catch, but even taking into account Stewart’s almost expressionless face, it’s still absorbing and thoughtful, and Stewart is genuinely compelling.
- Star rating: Three stars
- Cast: Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielsen Lie
- Director: Olivier Assayas
- Writer: Olivier Assayas, Christelle Meaux
- Cinematographer: Yorik Le Saux
- Duration: 105 minutes