Almost two years ago now, director Olivier Assayas and star Kristen Stewart (with more than a little help from Juliette Binoche) gave us one of the most intriguing and beautiful films of 2015 in The Clouds of Sils Maria. Now the pair have re-teamed for Personal Shopper – which just happens to be one of the most intriguing and beautiful films of 2017.
Unlike Clouds though, which was a stunning exploration of power, grief and manipulation, Personal Shopper could – at a superficial level at least – be considered a genre movie. There’s no getting away from the fact there is a ghost story at the heart of the film; and not a cleverly hidden one either. Assayas makes the supernatural elements abundantly clear. Where Assayas diverges from your regular filmmaker however is that this isn’t “just” a ghost story. At a broader level, this is an almost elegiac mood piece; a continuation, in a way, of the themes Assayas explored in Clouds. So rather than becoming a genre movie, Personal Shopper ends up being a genre-busting movie. Woven into the texture of the film are elements of a psychological thriller, a love story of sorts, a powerful social commentary and a murder mystery. Under the weight of all that, a lesser director would surely have seen the whole thing puddle into an incomprehensible mess; but Assayas is so nimble in his direction, it’s like watching a ballerina.
The film opens with Maureen Cartwright (Stewart) visiting an empty Paris house. She’s there to use her “gift” as a medium to sense whether the place is haunted. Thing is, she herself is haunted by the recent death of her brother in the same city. Desperate to make contact with his spirit (due to a pact the two made years earlier), Maureen spends the night in the eerie mansion and encounters some disturbing phenomena. By day however Maureen is a personal shopper for a local celebrity, Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), whom she rarely sees. Kyra prefers to communicate by phone or text message than to ever meet in person. This results in Maureen often having to visit Kyra’s swank apartment alone, to deliver or pick up clothes. On one occasion however, Kyra is there and Maureen encounters her boyfriend Ingo (Lars Eidinger). After that, things take a darker turn as someone – or something – begins stalking Maureen.
In a way, Personal Shopper is likely to be a niche film for a niche audience. Assayas’ art house sensibilities and deliberate pacing are unlikely to play with horror fans expecting more jump-scares and gore; while art-house audiences may well struggle with the film’s supernatural elements. That said, the film offers (albeit, quite obliquely) a rational explanation for the spooky goings-on in its enigmatic final scene. Despite its constrained focus however, the film is an object lesson in measured build-up and character exposition. It also features one of the very best uses of technology (as in mobile phones) seen on screen in a long while.
Kristen Stewart is simply brilliant in a leading role. She was in severe danger of being typecast after the Twilight series, but has re-invented herself as a serious and interesting actor. Her recent film choices (which include Woody Allen’s Café Society and the quirky American Ultra) show she’s a force to be reckoned with. This role is perfectly suited to her style, highlighted by her casual – almost nonchalant – delivery paired with an impressive physicality to bring the character to life when dialogue can’t. Since Stewart appears in just about every scene in the film, the remainder of the cast get only limited opportunities; but Sigrid Bouaziz makes the most of them as Lara, the former partner of Maureen’s deceased brother, and Lars Eidinger is suitably creepy as Ingo.
While perhaps not the easiest film you’ll see this year, Personal Shopper is a triumph for both Assayas and Stewart. This is sure to be a film that will provoke strong reactions – both for and against – and plenty of discussion. For me though, this is another feather in the cap of Assayas, who continues to be one of the most intriguing of the current crop of European directors.
Director: Olivier Assayas
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Sigrid Bouaziz, Lars Eidinger
Release Date: 13 April 2017
Rating: MA 15+
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television