Director Olivier Assayas reunites with his ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’ star Kristen Stewart in ‘Personal Shopper’ and I have to say on the basis of these two films alone, this is one of the most exciting director/performer duos in the movies today. “A movie isn’t supposed to have answers, it’s supposed to raise questions.” This is what Assayas said at the ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’ premiere at TIFF 2015. I thought back to this quote after seeing ‘Personal Shopper’ on Sunday night. There were a number of things I couldn’t explain. So, I went to see it again Monday night. On second viewing, I was even more confused – there were now three possible interpretations as opposed to the two I had after my initial viewing. But with such a peculiar, compulsively involving, and puzzling piece of work, who needs to have the answers?
‘Personal Shopper’ starts off as a ghost story. In the opening minutes, we see Maureen (Stewart) arriving at a dark, creaky, rambling old house. Here, she waits for a sign from a spirit that may be residing within. She isn’t a paranormal investigator by trade. This is personal for her. The home used to belong to her brother, Lewis, who recently died of the same heart defect she has. Lewis promised that if he died first, he would make contact with her to let her know that he was at peace and that there was some kind of afterlife. Assayas’ camera moves stealthily through the darkened halls and what transpires is unnerving if inexplicable.
Maureen works as a personal assistant and shopper in Paris for a spoiled socialite named Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten), buying her expensive clothing and jewellery for public appearances. She resents her job. Kyra might as well be a spirit – she’s never around and when she is, she barely acknowledges Maureen’s presence (other than to say she wants to keep the pricey items that were lent out to her). Maureen’s job keeps her from communing with her dead twin. She eventually finds herself plagued by mysterious text messages from an unknown source that seems to know her every move and location. The possibility that the sender is flesh-and-blood is muted because she wants to believe these texts are coming from beyond the grave.
‘Personal Shopper’ is a Hitchcockian murder mystery. It’s a moving story about grief. It’s a haunting supernatural thriller. Assayas masterfully shifts multiple related but distinct genres and levels of consciousness. Not for a moment did I feel the movie adhered to any genre conventions whatsoever – it is very much its own unclassifiable entity. The section I liked the most sounds the least exciting – those bizarre and increasingly creepy text messages Maureen receives. A long section of the film consists of text exchanges and this movie offers up proof that a skilled filmmaker can turn text-messaging sequences into frighteningly exhilarating cinema.
I can’t be sure which of my three interpretations is “right” but Assayas juggles all these possibilities and maintains their respective mysteries without letting things dissolve into nonsensical woo woo. Stewart gives the performance her still-developing career. This is a tricky role – a strong central character that modulates her performance depending on the person she interacts with. She’s a different version of herself to the various people she interacts with throughout the film – she is consistently authentic in each of those modes and there isn’t a false note anywhere to be found. Her smallest gestures resonate. She’s in nearly every frame and the camera hangs onto her every mood and movement. The days of ‘Twilight’ are long behind her. She now delivers finely nuanced work film after film. Those on the lookout for great acting can find her doing just that it in ‘Personal Shopper’, or ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’, or ‘Certain Women’. It’s also worth noting that Stewart was the first American actress to win the Cesar (the French equivalent of an Oscar) for her work here.
Some viewers will find ‘Personal Shopper’ too ambiguous for their liking. We are dropped in the middle of the action and we’re required to piece things together by observation. There are narrative strands that are intentionally irresolute but it never feels disjointed. The first audience to see it at the Cannes Film Festival last year booed the movie. That means nothing. Those who are open to experiencing something challenging and original will find that ‘Personal Shopper’ offers contemplative ruminations on industry narcissism and mortality, features a number of genuinely terrifying set pieces, and has one of the best central performances in recent memory. Regardless of how you choose to intellectually disentangle ‘Personal Shopper’, it has a raw emotional effect that will stick with you long after the credits have rolled. This is the best film of 2017 so far. QED.