FOLLOWING the critical success of 2014’s Clouds of Sils Maria, it was inevitable that acclaimed director Olivier Assayas and actress sensation Kristen Stewart would reunite at some stage.
They have for Personal Shopper, a classy film (now released on DVD) that unexpectedly tackles our perception of the supernatural.
The outcome is an intelligent, absorbing and genre-defining story. Stewart, without Juliette Binoche (Maria Enders in Clouds of Sils Maria) as her foil, takes up almost every frame. She responds with a sublime solo lead performance which lends humanity and credibility to Assayas’ divergent exploration of the invisible.
Stewart plays Maureen, a personal shopper working for an aloof celebrity – Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten) – in Paris. Despite feeling disillusioned by her job, she remains tied to the city by the hope her recently deceased twin brother will make contact from the afterlife. Tellingly, Maureen cuts an alienated figure drifting through blurry, Parisian streets on her scooter.
Already on-edge, a series of anonymous text messages deepens Maureen’s personal turmoil which soon threatens to bleed into her professional life. Is it her brother Lewis somehow sending the texts or is it a more sinister figure? Just as importantly, what is their motive?
Despite the film opening with a view of a spooky-looking gated house, Personal Shopper does not follow the path of morality-based American horror. Instead, Assayas takes a meditative approach which contemplates our relationship with the supernatural through the arts and technology.
At one point, Maureen rides the train and – with headphones on – watches YouTube videos about 20th Century Swedish abstract artist Hilma af Klint. It is surprisingly engrossing to watch, but also speaks perfectly to the film’s non-binary investigation of the invisible.
As well as the supernatural, Personal Shopper is about Maureen’s personal and inner-looking journey. Although wishing to connect with her deceased brother, she is also forced to confront deeper, hidden emotions within herself. With this, elements of psychological study creep in which are not too far from Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) starring Natalie Portman.
Maureen’s introspective questioning intensifies when the mysterious text messages begin. These are moments when the film could lose its audience, but Stewart helps hold and – impressively – heighten the intrigue.
Even sitting on a train reacting to texts, she has an electric and highly engaging on-screen presence. But Assayas also appreciates her enthralling physical acting in more open spaces through long tracking sequences.
In keeping with the film’s use of drained colours, Maureen is often seen in baggy sweaters and little makeup. This works to heighten the allure when she is around Kyra’s sparkling and expensive dresses.
The film’s most brilliant scene arrives as Maureen daringly tries on one of Kyra’s outfits. She does this while Assayas devilishly plays Marlene Dietrich’s twinkly sounding tune Das Hobellied. Unbeknown to most non-German speaking audiences, the song – which would not feel out of place in a Disney animation – is all about death. Fittingly so, Maureen’s aura transfoms, Cinderella-like, from one of vulnerability to sensual strength. With powerful acting and directing on show, it amounts to pitch perfect mise en scene.
Assayas deserves credit for getting the most out of Stewart’s qualities. In some ways, it reminds me of the way Hitchcock used James Stewart’s everyday accessibility to explore darker themes in films such as Vertigo and Rear Window.
Kristen Stewart has a sincere relatability and magnetism. It worked effortlessly to counter Maria Enders’ stubborn pride in Clouds of Sils Maria (expertly played by Binoche). And now gives Assayas the opportunity to delve into the easily derided subject of the supernatural in Personal Shopper.
Personal Shopper is one of the best films in recent years. Stewart’s performance, comprising a mix of emotional complexity, nuance and weight, is on a par with Amy Adams in Arrival and Portman in Black Swan. Captivating cinema.
Bravo Stewart and Assayas. We can only hope you work together again so that we can celebrate a triple success.
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Also read: Kristen Stewart: Back from the Twilight