UK Release Date: 17th March 2017
Runtime: 105 minutes
Director: Olivier Assayas
Writer: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Sigrid Bouaziz, Lars Eidinger, Nora von Waldstätten, Anders Danielsen Lie, Ty Olwin
Synopsis: After a strange encounter with a ghost in her dead brother’s house, a personal shopper begins to receive strange and threatening text messages from an unknown source.
Five years on from the end of the Twilight franchise, it’s becoming increasingly hard for anyone to argue that Kristen Stewart is anything other than an excellent actor. She has taken on a variety of brave and interesting roles since saying goodbye to Bella Swan, working with filmmakers as varied as Ang Lee, Walter Salles and Kelly Reichardt. Her biggest success, though, was becoming the first American actress to win a César Award for her work in Olivier Assayas‘ Clouds of Sils Maria. That burgeoning director-star partnership is the driving force behind Personal Shopper, which is a beguiling and complex ghost story with a nuanced understanding of grief and a stunning performance from Stewart – at the peak of her unique powers.
Maureen (Stewart) is living in Paris and spends her days working as a personal shopper for spoiled catwalk model Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), miles away from her boyfriend Gary (Ty Olwin). In the evenings, she is staying in the house of her recently deceased brother, with the consent of his partner Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz), hoping to receive a message he promised her he would send if he encountered an afterlife. After a spiritual experience one night, Maureen begins to receive text messages from an unknown source that encourage her to take risks and confront the issues keeping her trapped in an unfulfilling existence.
Assayas ensures from the start of Personal Shopper that it’s a film completely unenamoured with any traditional genre boxes. It has elements of horror and dashings of paranoid psychological thriller, but it’s also a murder-mystery and a drama set within the world of high fashion. The story befriends ambiguity and eschews anything that might trap it in a box. The early scenes, in which Stewart wanders nervously around a dark, cavernous home could be lifted straight out of any haunted house horror and some of the spectral appearances bring to mind Jack Clayton’s brilliant The Innocents in their horrifically corporeal appearance. A later protracted sequence of Stewart trying on her employer’s clothes has the unmistakeable feel of European arthouse drama and a genuinely tense succession of text messages aches with the Hitchcockian suspense of a tightly-wound thriller.
Kristen Stewart’s performance could easily have been lost in amongst the genre-bending action, but Assayas strips everything back in order to ensure that the film is, first and foremost, a showcase for her. The twitchy awkwardness, as if she’s consistently uncomfortable in her own skin, was part of what turned audiences off when they saw her in Twilight, but fits this role like a glove. Maureen is a woman entirely unsure of her position and longing to be someone else. When the sinister voice bombarding her phone with text messages encourages her to taste the forbidden fruit of her employer’s frocks, it’s as if she is being egged on by her own id, hungry for attention.
Assayas makes the most of the film’s myriad locations in order to create completely different tones, from the Gothic darkness of the house at the beginning of the film to Kyra’s sleek apartment and the bustling streets of Paris. The most intriguing thing is that Maureen doesn’t seem to fit into any of these locations, as if she’s a woman completely at sea as a result of her crippling grief, which manifests in terror, anxiety and a major identity crisis. The boldly ambiguous final scene, which raises many more questions than it dares to answer, is an encapsulation of the complexity of grief that rivals anything in The Babadook – the film that marks the modern pinnacle of grief in horror movie form.
Personal Shopper is a defiantly unique film that isn’t going to please everybody. The fact that it received both a chorus of boos and a standing ovation when it showed at the Cannes Film Festival last year says everything that you need to know about its divisive storytelling. For those willing to engage with it, though, the film is a complex tale of grief, paranoia and identity that is terrifying when it wants to be and incredibly thoughtful about the most complicated of subjects.
Pop or Poop?
It’s clear from the outset that Personal Shopper isn’t the most accessible of films, but Kristen Stewart’s central performance brings Olivier Assayas’ emotionally sophisticated story to life. Stewart is the best she has ever been in a tale that poses a lot of questions and allows her face to convey the answers. This film is short on exposition and packed with intrigue. It’s a dreamlike film that washes over the audience, enriching everyone it touches.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.