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Howard Davis Review: Olivier Assayas' 'Personal Shopper'

Who You Gonna Call?

Olivier Assayas' 'Personal Shopper'
Review by Howard Davis

Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper is stylish, mysterious, and very strange indeed. It manages to be both ghost story and suspense thriller, yet also a portrait of numbed loneliness and ennui, held together by an peculiarly inexpressive performance from Kristen Stewart. In her unforced and unaffected normality, she provides the audience with a way into the dramatic atmosphere of shivery fear, poignant elegance, and uncanny ambiguity. Her subtle rendering of a disturbed and distressed subordinate manages to be simultaneously sexy, vulnerable, and utterly unlikeable, convincingly conveying a post-modern sensibility of cynical alienation in a desperate search for hope and reassurance.

Stewart plays Maureen Cartwright, a young American based in Paris employed as a personal shopper by an imperious fashionista supermodel called Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten). Maureen's character has an added dimension - she is also a medium, able to commune with the dead. Her twin brother died of a heart attack the previous year in the house in which they were both raised, and she starts out investigating this gloomy Gothic property for traces of his ghost. The film's first fifteen minutes are deliberately slow and lethargic, with no dialogue or musical score as Maureen explores the large, rambling house accompanied only by the sound of the wind outside and old timbers creaking.


Svanen (The Swan), No 17, Group 9 -Hilma af Klint, 1915

This protracted opening scene is genuinely eerie and is soon followed by a series of sudden tonal shifts leading to multiple shocks, as the film first evolves into a thriller, then ventures closer to psycho-erotic territory. Obscure and haunting references are made to the pioneering Swedish abstract artist and mystic Hilma af Klint and to Victor Hugo's table-turning seances on the Channel Island of Jersey. Apparently, Hugo wanted to talk to his dead daughter, who drowned with her husband in a boating accident on the Seine, and accumulated an impressive list of contacts along the way, including Jesus, Cain, Jacob, Moses, Isaiah, Judas, Mohammed, Luther, Galileo, Dante, Napoleon, Shakespeare, Socrates, and Moliere. It did little for his credibility when he also claimed to have made contact with an incoherent fairy speaking in Assyrian.

The rest of the movie largely involves Maureen hanging out at various chic Parisian locations where her brother was last seen, in case he tries to contact her from beyond the grave. She already knows some of his acquaintances, and meets a number of others as the narrative unravels, including a threatening figure who starts sending her anonymous cellphone texts. As Maureen tries to figure out his identity, she continues to go about her day-to-day existence, hoping for more signs from her late brother to emerge. Kyra pays her to ride around Paris on her scooter with wads of cash, picking up expensive clothes and luxurious pieces of Cartier jewelry, or nip over to London on the Eurostar. In one scene, Maureen obediently lingers outside the bedroom of Kyra’s lavish apartment, while her boss conducts an intemperate conference call with a lawyer about her charitable foundation’s retreat for gorillas.

In her own self-effacing way, Maureen is obsessed with Kyra’s lifestyle and accessories, succumbing to a joyless addiction with which she tries to dull her unresolved guilt and grief. Maureen may be in her mid-20s, but she has already amassed a lifetime of sadness, with dark circles ringing her eyes. She normally lopes around in skinny jeans and funky sweaters from which white iPhone earbuds constantly protrude, but she also looks sensational decked out under the hollow facade of haute couture. Her near-anorexic body is occasionally revealed in a cold and marmoreal manner, such as the scene in which she tries on one of Kyra’s designer creations and in a non-diegetic moment we suddenly hear Marlene Dietrich singing the Viennese folk lyric The Planing Song. It is a song about death bringing everyone down to the same level, full of erotic despair, hubris, and mortality - especially when we recall that Maureen’s late brother was a carpenter and in a later scene his girlfriend is shown planing down a piece of wood. And all the while, Maureen keeps getting creepy texts from the unknown Other Person who could be her brother’s unquiet spirit, one of her acquaintances, or a sinister stalker …

Yorick Le Saux' cinematography is unobtrusively pastel-hued, while Hitchcock would have admired the masterly editing by Marion Monnier of a sequence in which a row of her pursuer’s threatening texts rapidly stack up on her cell phone. Maureen is a next-generation version of Catherine Deneuve in Polanski's Repulsion, with whom she shares a sense of otherworldly desolation and cultural anomie. The film sets up an overtly obvious dichotomy between the empty materialism of celebrity culture and a desperate search for deeper spiritual connections, revealing the high fashion lifestyle as a shallow pretext for reality, inhabited by a variety of posers, imposters, and psychopaths. Maureen herself could be considered a psychologically-damaged stalker, unable to leave the dead alone, prodding and provoking them, and making them restless. The movie’s coda hints that this may be a possible solution to the film's multiple riddles, as it abruptly relocates us to Oman and duplicates the unnerving impressions of the opening scene, while remaining equally inscrutable.

Assayas has described Personal Shopper as a companion piece to Clouds of Sils Maria (2014). In both films, Kristen Stewart plays a woman on the fringes of wealth and celebrity, but Assayas did not originally intend to make two films in a row with her. He was working on another production when the financing fell through, and immediately started work on another screenplay, saying he would not have written it if he had not already worked with Stewart. It was the first film at the 69th Cannes International Film Festival to be booed by some of the critics, while others gave it rave reviews. In spite of the split decision by critics, it received a standing ovation from the audience and Assayas went on to win Best Director award from the Official Competition jury. Understandably contradictory responses indeed, when images of vomiting ectoplasm were so efficiently mocked by Ghostbusters that is hard to take them seriously any more, especially when all of the characters seem so disengaged and unsympathetic.

***

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