Bergen International Film Festival 2016
Olivier Assayas’ first collaboration with Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria was far from perfect, but its very essence extruded immense potential. In Personal Shopper their aspirations are grander and much more focused, and this time Stewart is not only permitted front and center, but – with a certain je ne sais quoi – is able to steer the narrative and own the entire movie.
Maureen (Stewart) seems stuck and lost in Paris in the wake of her twin-brother’s death. She earns money rather apathetically as a personal shopper for an affluent fashionista, but cannot move on as she made a pact with her twin-brother before he passed away; that whoever died first would send the other a sign. She lingers in an environment she wants to get away from, and for every moment she delays her departure, she gets more and more entangled within it. When she goes away to London for work, or tries to escape her own identity – in a massively seductive and affectionate sequence – she’s pulled back, deeper and deeper.
The movie is almost exclusively set in Paris, but Assayas manages to make it feel unique and fresh – neither an Allen-esque romanticisation nor in the world of social realism. Old and picturesque country houses, modernistic apartments, slick and ostentatious stores. It all lends itself rather well to the movie’s aesthetic presentation, which again, is neither overly this or that, but beautifully rendered, with equal amounts of tenderness and pompous allure. Large sections of the movie are confined to Maureen’s iPhone screen, however, as she starts to text with an “unknown” whose motivations and intentions are purposefully vague. To tell a story with texts messages in a movie is to dive into murky waters head first, as there are few things more uninspired and boring than a close up of a screen, and while there are many inspired ways to play with it (see this video essay) Assayas’ approach is shockingly straightforward. He makes it work, however, as it becomes an extension of the story – not just a lazy exposition tool – and by making it feel organic and real; certain texts almost seem improvised. This is a testament to Assayas’ understanding of his material.
Personal Shopper sees Assayas explore the unknown through the known; examine the different manifestation of loss and grief; and how our search for meaning can take us to unexpected places. The movie becomes a playful amalgam of different genres and philosophical musings, and while it can be seen as a superfluous ghost-drama for the iPhone-generation, the ideas all its different elements represent pushes it into a profound affirmation of self-examination and realization. Maureen’s search for her brother – be it spirit, ghost, soul, whatever – is not about whether or not these things are real, but rather it is about whether or not she can accept that he is gone, and whether or not she can move on.
Assayas’ screenplay is awkward at times – certain pieces of english dialogue could’ve used an edit – but his directorial sensibilities are not. He has constructed a puzzle where every piece is there for you to find and play with. Incredibly rich on details, both narratively and formally, it invites repeated viewings, and – having seen it three times in four days – it is deeply rewarding in this manner; my appreciation for it grew with each screening as I uncovered/understood new things every time; in its narrative, characters and cinematic language.
The pièce de résistance of the film, however, is Kristen Stewart. It seems every performance she does these days is better than the last, and as she continues to grow as an actor, she can no longer be seen as “one of the greatest young american actors working today,” but rather as “one of the greatest actors working today.” Her emotions are subdued and nuanced; she allows Maureen’s emotions to build slowly, working their way from inner turmoil to external expression with incredible grace. Her dialogue is delivered with authenticity and personality; she never feels like a character, a caricature, or a projection of the screenplay. She uses her body language to communicate her emotions and emphasise her intentions, to tell an entire story of introspection.
Olivier Assayas may have divided the audience more than ever with Personal Shopper, but for me this is his most intelligent and sincere work to date. It is not perfect, “far from it,” but it is honest. And as I use his favorite word in the dictionary, I think a quote from the one and only Ernest Hemingway best describes Kristen Stewart’s performance here: “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.”¹ Stewart is the writer, and Maureen the novel, and it touched me deeply.
¹A Death in the Afternoon