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Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper is the third great film this year. It’s also the best one so far. It’s a movie I wanted to see again as the end credits rolled.
The film shape shifts as it ambles along, yet it still manages to expertly build tension as it goes. Languid at times, while immediate at others it presents the facts of the story as objectively as possible. When the movie draws to a close though the film seems to be smirking at us. Almost saying “What? You saw what happened. You figure it out.”
Personal Shopper is a wonderfully chilly delightful sometimes impenetrable film. It stays with you, playfully so, as you replay certain scenes in your head, second guessing yourself, even when you don’t need to. But were you to describe the film to a friend or loved one bullet point by bullet point it would seem so mundane and the answer so simple. The questions and possibilities said out loud sound like answers and interpretations instead of observations and possible meanings.
At its core, this is a film about grief and longing. Maureen (Kristen Stewart) is a medium, a personal shopper, and a twin. Her twin brother, Lewis, died three months before of a heart attack. Like her, Lewis had an enlarged heart. Lewis was also a medium. He died in an old house he had recently bought to renovate and turn into a school.
Lewis wife Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz), drives Maureen out to the old house at night, where she spends the night attempting to make contact. Lewis and Maureen made a pact. If one of them died, they would make contact with the other. On the first night, something happens. Or does it? We see something. We hear something. But was that there before? Maureen herself doesn’t know.
When Lara returns to pick Maureen up; she reports her experience. It’s then we learn she’s both trying to make contact with her brother and see if the house is clean because Lewis and Lara’s best friends want to buy it. And so she goes back a second night.
She see’s a ghost. An angry ghost. Not Lewis. She runs. She runs home and tells Lara about the spirit, how she thinks it’s gone and then goes to work. We follow her as she does the personal shopping for her boss Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten), a person we rarely see and know even less about.
Upon returning to Kyra’s to pick up her money and some outfits she meets Ingo (Lars Eidinger). He’s having an affair with Kyra only she’s dumped him, and he’s waiting around to beg her not to. So Maureen does what any person would do in her situation. She strikes up a conversation with the man and tells him she’s a medium and tells about her experience at her brother’s house.
That Personal Shopper is so preposterous while so beguiling and unaffected is one of its many charms. Assayas handles the transitions between telling a chilling ghost story to a day in the life of a woman who buys things for rich people effortless and believable. Plus what is that behind Ingo? Is that just light reflected on glass is that…no. It’s light. Or is it?
Assayas keeps us off balanced by ending scenes in places other directors would have played out. When Maureen asks the hotel Concierge who paid for the room, the scene fades to black. But it does as the Concierge is talking. The sound drowns out, and the screen goes dark. It’s weird and ingenious. It puts us off balance as the film sneaks into its next chapter.
Say nothing of the fifteen-minute scene where Maureen texts with a stranger on a train. Of course, we know who it is, though. It has to be Ingo. Who else would it be? Ghosts don’t text. But then why have Lara tell Maureen about Victor Hugo’s experiences with making contact to the other side? Why has Lara suggested a French made-for-television movie about it? Why have Maureen watch it and why have us watch it with her?
But seriously there is a fifteen-minute texting scene, and it is riveting. I don’t know why. Assayas doesn’t do anything particularly special with the camera. He doesn’t attempt to liven up the texting with any kind of embellishment. Just by editing, music, and Stewart.
The last part is what makes this movie work. Kristen Stewart’s work as Maureen is the most fascinating performance of the year and will likely remain so. It is mannered without being artificial. It’s expressive while still seeming secretive. Kristen Stewart isn’t acting; she’s existing within the film. It’s a brash, layered, fully formed, confident, vulnerable, complete work.
Stewart is the best actor of her generation full stop. This is it. Her work in this movie is impeccable. If it seems like I’m overselling it, I’m not.
This is not just oh she went back for the cup. It is not oh, I totally felt her pain or her fear. This is Stewart just being without an ounce of affectation, and you can’t tear your eyes away from her.
The ending seems simple. But there is a moment before the end a few scenes before that is shown to us in a straightforward way. Except I’m not entirely sure what I saw. We tend to get brainwashed into thinking that everything in a movie has an explanation. Sometimes they even go so far as to try and tell us how to feel and think about what we just saw.
Personal Shopper and Assayas seem to be content with letting us figure it out and coming to our own conclusions; whatever they may be. I have my own thoughts and suspicions. You will too.