Personal Shopper – Film Review
Directed by Olivier Assayas
Starring Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Nora von Waldstätten
Review by David Turpin
After offering a singular take on backstage melodrama in 2014’s Clouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas makes another play on genre – this time the supernatural mystery – in Personal Shopper. The film reunites him with Kristen Stewart, who received a richly deserved César award for her turn in Clouds of Sils Maria. While Clouds of Sils Maria paired Stewart with a very fine Juliette Binoche, this latest collaboration between director and star focuses almost entirely on Stewart alone. Never less than compelling, her fascinatingly interior performance anchors a film that is less resolved than Clouds of Sils Maria, but that is also stranger and wittier, as well as – when the spirit moves it – genuinely thrilling. Likely to be Assayas’ most divisive film since 2002’s Demonlover, Personal Shopper is also, unexpectedly, the most fun he’s been since Irma Vep (1996). It’s a chilly, rarefied kind of fun, certainly, but it’s a taste that’s well worth acquiring.
The plot – which is rather beside the point – casts Stewart as Maureen, the coolly competent, deeply dissatisfied personal shopper for monstrous fashion star Kyra (a hoot of a character sketch from Austrian actress Nora von Waldstätten). Maureen spends a great deal of her time zipping from pillar to post in Paris and London, fetching designer gowns and jewellery for Kyra, but that’s not the only string to her bow. She’s also a medium – a skill that is laid out in a genuinely unnerving opening sequence set in an abandoned house. Maureen is mourning her twin brother, who died as a result of the congenital heart condition that she also carries. It would seem that she is lingering in Paris in a kind of stasis, awaiting a signal from her dead brother that will enable her to continue her own life. She eventually receives a signal – but not from the source she is expecting.
One of the biggest delights of Personal Shopper is that it allows the supernatural to exist as both metaphor and actuality. That Assayas is using the ghost story form to explore his persistent concerns with power and identity seems a given – the real surprise is that the ghosts are not merely pretexts for thesis-building, but are real agents of the otherworldly. The degree to which one is prepared to accept digitally rendered apparitions rubbing shoulders with Assayas’ often coolly academic style will probably determine whether one can accept Personal Shopper at all. This correspondent, for one, found the juxtaposition a sheer delight.
Watching Assayas tackle a ghost story makes one think how much more wonderful this world might be if more top-shelf auteurs wrested the fantastic and the paranormal away from the straitjacket of genre. Whether one loves it or hates it – and there will surely be many in both camps – Personal Shopper is unquestionably the work of a consummate filmmaker. For a lesson in what makes a great director, watch it alongside Nicolas Winding Refn’s fatuous The Neon Demon (2016), which also mines fashion for the phantasmagorical, but can’t come up with anything more exciting than a perfume commercial dipped in fake blood. Or, better yet, compare Assayas’ ruthless control and scintillating subtlety to the dim-witted fakery of Tom Ford’s execrable Nocturnal Animals (2016), which made embarrassingly inept lunges at similar implacable surfaces and unsettling depths.
Even those unconvinced by Personal Shopper’s formal daring and exquisite command of tone will have to concede that Stewart gives a terrific performance – not least because much of it is done in isolation, as she interacts with various items of clothing and, most frequently, her mobile phone. Assayas has always had an interesting approach to technology, and the way in which tech devices can be used to introduce new formal and narrative techniques – miniature screens becoming parallel texts within the film itself. Here, he and Stewart conjure pure cinematic alchemy out of the humble text message, with a brilliantly sustained set-piece in which Maureen communicates with an unknown interlocutor by phone while en route from Paris to London and back again via Eurostar. The climactic moments of this sequence, in which a sequence of delayed messages arrive one after the other in a terrifying rush, is not only a brilliantly clever piece of textual play, but also the most devilishly exciting use of a phone on screen since Barbara Stanwyck held the line in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948).
In narrative terms, Personal Shopper emerges as something of a shaggy dog story. This will probably be the final straw for the unconvinced. It would be a mistake – and a misunderstanding of what cinema is for – if one was to dismiss it on those terms. For one, Personal Shopper is a collaboration between director and actress that bears comparison with David Lynch’s work with Naomi Watts in Mulholland Dr. (2001) and Laura Dern in Inland Empire (2006) – both shaggy dog stories themselves, as well as masterpieces. It’s a reminder of what can happen when the actress is a vehicle for the film, as much as the film is a vehicle for the actress.
Moreover, the way in which Assayas puts his command of the medium to the service of this strange hallucination reminds us that there are more ways to make a great piece of cinema than we might easily acknowledge. Story is all very well, but ultimately films speak to the part of our mind that dreams, not the part of our mind that listens to trite anecdotes with beginnings, middles, and ends. In cinema, nothing else truly matters if what unfolds before us touches us where we dream – if it’s funny enough, scary enough, sexy enough. Personal Shopper is all of those things, and in greater proportions than anyone had a right to expect. It’s as terrifyingly enticing and as deliciously frustrating as all the best dreams, and it’s the first unmissable film of 2017.