Personal Shopper is French director Olivier Assayas’s new film, and his second collaboration with American actress Kristen Stewart. Their cinematic relationship, which begun with Clouds of Sils Maria, is proving to be of great mutual self-interest. Assayas is, quite remarkably, helping Stewart break free of her Twilight-era reputation, while Stewart’s acting realises Assayas lofty cinematic visions.
Personal Shopper begins with Stewart’s character, Maureen, weaving through dark, labyrinthine rooms and hallways contained in an empty mansion. The scene is odd, but moody. Only later do we find out that Maureen was trying to find traces of her dead brother, Lewis. Maureen and Lewis had the same heart condition, and both promised to make contact with whichever sibling died first. So, throughout the film Maureen spends considerable time trying to locate Lewis’s spirit in the physical world.
Maureen is also a personal shopper for celebrity model Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten) whom she detests. Kyra is a neglectful boss, who usually leaves Maureen to her own devices and gives her very little credit for her efforts. Kyra only insists that Maureen not try on the clothes she selects – but in one pivotal scene Maureen defies the order by slipping into a blue dress and black high heels.
Assayas’s film is an enigmatic one that can’t be easily pinned down. Although it solely follows Maureen’s character through her boring but very anomalous life, there is an expansive breadth to the ideas, set pieces and narrative trajectory in the film: as Maureen spends time working as a medium and a personal shopper; in a texting exchange with an intrusive, mysterious unknown; and is even caught up in a confounding murder. There is a certain incoherency about everything that happens, but we vaguely sense that Assayas has created something special.
One of the more ascertainable things in the film is the unrelenting examination of Maureen as a powerless, lonesome character. The camera often lingers on her meek stature, typically enshrouded in shadows. Maureen wanders through her life invisibly: her job is to pick out clothes for a much-loved celebrity. Assayas’s direction, particularly in the many long-shots of Maureen, notates to us a strong fascination with her as a physical and psychological entity.
Probably the most substantial shift in sensibility is when Maureen begins to receive a series of unsolicited text messages from a blocked number. The messages expose that the person (or soul?) knows a lot about Maureen. She hopes that it is Lewis, but we never know for sure. Assayas’s control over the sequence is spectacular, as he modulates every moment with tense precision – provoking in us gross uncertainty, curiosity and nervousness. Who is texting Maureen and for what reason?
Assayas, perhaps unsurprisingly, won best director at Cannes for Personal Shopper, a film that is perfectly disposed to success at such an artistic film festival. But whether we understand Personal Shopper or not has no bearing on the recognition of Assayas achievements. Personal Shopper is so immaculately constructed that there is an unspoken allure about it, a ethereality rarely seen in contemporary cinema, comparable to the uniqueness of Charlie Kaufman’s or Paolo Sorrentino’s work. Assayas displays a full appreciation of the cinematic medium in creating meaning and feeling.
A significant portion of Personal Shopper is communicated through image and movements; most of which come courtesy of Kristen Stewart’s Maureen. Much of the film’s success was riding upon Stewart’s performance, and she shows herself to be up to the challenge. Admittedly, the character of Maureen seems to be up Stewart’s alley: a disaffected, isolated figure who wades through the meaningless of life. Stewart brings a quiet, unstated authority to the role, often manifested through her tight, clinical facial expressions. Personal Shopper appears to leave us in no doubt of Stewart’s acting ability and the shift from teen idol to serious performer.
Personal Shopper is a lot of things – sometimes a horror film, a supernatural thriller, a character study – but its eclecticism leads to an incomprehensibility that may irritate some viewers. For others not hung up grasping every single detail, it is a film to savour. On the whole, though, the film could have done with greater thematic and narrative precision, without undermining the rich cinematic experience that it offers.
Personal Shopper is released on April 13 by Rialto Distribution.