Several of my peers have accused French director Olivier Assayas (Carlos) of committing alchemy for coaxing a Cesar (French Oscar)-winning performance from Kristen Stewart in their last movie together, Clouds of Sils Maria.
While Assayas has made some terrific films, he’s simply noticed what anyone who has seen Stewart in film that wasn’t part of The Twilight Saga knows: When a director asks Stewart to play something other than a human doormat like Bella Swan, she’s terrific.
Stewart has a movie star’s bearing and appearance, combined with an odd accessibility that works whether she’s playing a beleaguered personal assistant (as she did in Clouds of Sils Maria), a novice law teacher (in Certain Women) or a rock star (in The Runaways). In the latter, she has the commanding presence of the real Joan Jett while also making her seem like a real person instead of an icon.
“We see just enough of her to know she’s neither pleasant nor enlightening company…”
In some ways, Personal Shopper combines the supernatural elements of The Twilight Saga with the distinctive tone and approach of Assayas’ European films with rewarding results. The writer-director treats the unexplained as if it were simply a fact of life, making it easier for skeptics and believers alike to find it convincing.
Stewart plays Maureen Cartwright, an American medium living in Paris who senses the presence of the departed and can even communicate with them in a limited way. Because she can talk with spirits for real, it’s just about impossible for Maureen to cash in on her gifts. Real spirits don’t always have comforting words for the living and can be as obnoxious as they were in life.
It’s hard to make a buck (or a Euro) off of someone’s grief if the ghost isn’t related to a client or has no befit for those still walking the earth.
To pay her rent, Maureen buys clothing and other essentials for a Germanic celebrity named Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten). Maureen’s boss has no discernable performing talent (she doesn’t even appear to be a model), but a quick Google search reveals a museum’s worth of photos of her wearing high end fashions.
Because Kyra is too famous to buy her outfits without getting mobbed, Maureen has to obtain them for her under the condition that she doesn’t try on her boss’ clothes for herself. The temptation is formidable because some of these garments cost as much as a motor vehicle, and Maureen has the job because she’s roughly the same size as her patroness.
If meeting Kyra’s mercurial requirements weren’t challenging enough, Maureen is grieving over the loss of her brother Lewis. It’s not a spoiler to say he never shows up on screen, but he is a more integral part of the story than the woman who pays for Maureen’s services.
Thankfully, Assayas doesn’t spend much time and the spiritually empty star. We see just enough of her to know she’s neither pleasant nor enlightening company. Thankfully, the director gets his point across quickly enough to keep his focus on the more engrossing Maureen.
“…it’s hard to say goodbye to a twin, especially one who shares her gift.”
Assayas’ movies like Irma Vep and Clouds of Sils Maria have dealt with the subject of fame, but the stars in those films were sympathetic because they had to deal with real stresses like aging and performance anxiety. Maureen won’t be a on a Google (or even a Yahoo!) search anytime soon, but she has a depth of emotion and intellect her boss and entourage will never reach. Because Stewart has both a presence and a common touch, she makes the simple act of trying on outfits look uniquely dramatic.
In addition to the ghosts she locates across Paris, she starts getting signals and even text messages from a telephone stalker who might be her late brother. In ordinary circumstances, she might report the interloper, but it’s hard to say goodbye to a twin, especially one who shares her gift.
Like her brother, the texter encourages Maureen to try on Kyra’s clothes because she’s rarely home. It’s easy to wonder of her unseen messenger is trying to get her out of her grief or setting her up for a fall.
By making viewers wonder if the signals are coming from a supernatural or an earthly place, Assays puts them into Maureen’s head. There are some brief sequences where the 62 year-old filmmaker effectively handles CGI and eerie sound effects, but it’s a lot scarier if we, too, are unsure if the voices in her head are benign, malevolent or even real.
Unlike a lot of filmmakers on this side of the Atlantic, Assayas lets a few mysteries remain once Personal Shopper is over. Mysteries lose much of their power if they are analyzed to death.
Personal Shopper (2016) Directed by Olivier Assayas Written 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
8 out of 10