Saturday, April 20, 2024

Second Chance Sundays: ‘Personal Shopper’

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We’re in a weird place right now both personally and industry-wise. The COVID-19 pandemic has upended almost every system by revealing flaws and cracks we either knew existed or had stubbornly ignored.  While many of us face quarantine, it has become a time of reflection and, in the case of film critics, a time to get creative while Hollywood decides how to proceed.

So here at The Fandomentals, we’re presenting Second Chance Sundays and Whatever Wednesdays.  On Second Chance Sundays I will take a movie previously reviewed and take another crack at it. I’ll be looking at movies I loved, hated, or felt ambivalent towards. I think Whatever Wednesdays speak for themselves. This is only temporary until everything settles down somewhat.

The first time I reviewed Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper I called it “a wonderfully chilly if somewhat impenetrable film.” It is a film which has stayed with me long after I have left the theater and more impressively long after I have written my review. Personal Shopper haunts my consciousness and is still one of my favorite movies I have seen or reviewed.

But I was wrong when I called it “somewhat impenetrable” and “chilly”. It is neither of those things, it is, in fact, an open book pulsating with grief and love. Re-watching Personal Shopper it struck me how much it was like Wim Winders’ Wings of Desire. Assayas has wrapped a movie filled with existential confusion into a movie about a medium Maureen (Kristen Stewart) who is desperately trying to figure out what happens to us after we die while also dealing with her own suffocating fear of worthlessness and death.

Re-watching Personal Shopper allows us to bypass the trappings of the film and instead focus on what Assayas and Stewart are doing. Yes, there is a story in which Maureen a medium who has a side job as a personal shopper for a famous rich lady whom she hates but is also hanging around to try and contact her recently deceased twin brother. That her brother, Lewis, also has the identical congenital heart defect that Maureen has, more than troubles Maureen.

I once read somewhere that Personal Shopper wasn’t haunting so much as haunted. A true statement considering how much Assayas and his cinematographer Yorick Le Saux frame almost every scene in a straight medium shot eschewing angles, close-ups, and wide shots. There are wide shots but those shots are merely to give us an idea of the vastness and inconceivable grandiosity of the world around us such as a train station, not majestic, but merely philosophical.  

Maureen’s quest to make contact with her brother isn’t about her moving on, it’s about her finding herself and accepting what she’s found. The story is just the mechanical device built by Assayas, with Stewart as the tool, and Le Saux his mechanic to guide us through her journey as they begin to pose questions not just about life after death, but of our very purpose. It is a ghost story about grief and sibling love that shrouds a universal and vexing question, “Why am I me and not you?”

Maureen, and the film itself, yearn for answers and comfort that cannot be granted. While trying to contact Lewis by staying in the house he used to own one night she experiences a phenomenon. The faucets in the bathrooms turn on. Maureen recognizes them as a sign.

Stumbling in the dark she cries out to Lewis begging him to be more direct. “I need more from you. I’m going to need more from you. Give me one more sign. Anything. Give me the tiniest thing.” Her voice goes from quiet as if she’s talking to herself to Stewart all but screaming into the void. “Is that it?” 

She questions the spirit as to what it’s trying to say, infuriated by it’s obfuscated ambiguity. “Is it to tell me there’s an afterlife? Is it to tell me you can see me you just cannot speak to me?” She shouts into the darkness but receives no answers or signs. 

Stewart is phenomenal throughout the entire film but here with Assayas and Le Saux’s help she creates a scene as potent and memorable as Max Von Sydow’s Knight confessing his fears to Death in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

Personal Shopper is Assayas channeling the existential malaise of a generation through Stewart herself as she searches for meaning and answers to not just her purpose but our purpose. Assayas’ script lays out every conversation in such a way that it is easy to believe they are merely talking about ghosts and Maureen’s desire to contact her brother.

But re-watching I realized that while yes, the film and people in the film, take ghosts at face value and acknowledge their existence, Maureen did not. Oh, she believes in ghosts and tells people without shame or embarrassment that she is a medium, but she is constantly questioning her abilities and those of others. While talking to her sister-in-law, Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz), she learns about how the author Victor Hugo held seances. Hearing his method she scoffs and calls it “bullshit”. 

Assayas has structured the script in a way that questions are never really answered. Every question is instead answered with another question. A Socratic aura shrouds Personal Shopper but it is always transparent. The characters themselves are never given answers, like Maureen, they are denied the certainty they so crave.

Personal Shopper could easily be pretentious or self-indulgent. Yet, underneath all it’s existential dread, there is humor. Maureen’s side job as a personal shopper acts as both another area in which Maureen feels inadequate exploring the class divides between her and her boss Kyra (Nora Waldstatten), while also poking fun at the vapidness of the upper class.

After being loaned two pairs of pants, on the condition they are returned to the store, Kyra has decided to keep them, putting Maureen in a difficult place. Trying to get Kyra’s attention to discuss the matter, she tries in vain to interrupt a phone meeting with a nameless voice and her lawyer. 

Kyra sits on her bed stretching and doing yoga poses, while her lawyer sits uncomfortably in a chair on the other side of the phone as they discuss gorillas. Apparently Kyra and her husband own a wildlife preserve, or adopted two gorillas, but need them to be present when the reporters arrive. Both the lawyer and Kyra refuse to listen to the man on the phone trying to explain to them the extreme impossibility of getting gorillas who live on a wildlife preserve to do anything other than what they want to do, reporter or not.

It’s played a straight forward but in a movie in which ghosts exists and has Maureen tossing off the line “She vomited this ectoplasm, lingered for a minute or less and then also disappeared,” Kyra’s troubles seem patently absurd. Assayas is clearly poking fun at the upper class.

Class is absolutely on Assayas’ mind as well as the afterlife. Particularly how the working class, who have little time to explore the question, are the ones most consumed by it. The idle rich on the other hand seem utterly unconcerned.

In many ways, Stewart’s Maureen is as indicative of a generation as Christan Bale’s Patrick Bateman. She tells her boyfriend over skype, “I spend my days doing bullshit that doesn’t interest me and it keeps me from doing what does. It’s driving me fucking crazy.”

Assayas has, more than any other director, manage to capture the malaise of life in modern late-stage capitalism while also depicting the most realistic and honest portrayal of our relationship with technology. Upon learning about an artist who claimed spirits helped her discover abstract art years before the abstract movement began, Maureen promptly looks up a YouTube video of her. People text incessantly, but rarely talk on the phone, a subtle difference from almost every other modern-day film borne from a generation in which texting is something forced upon them.

Even the way the characters talk seems eerily accurate. The discussion between Lara and Maureen about Victor Hugo ends with Lara defending the belief by citing a made for television movie from the 60’s. “It’s really tacky but–but seems accurate.” She then goes on to tell Maureen the search words needed to find it on YouTube. So many movies still confuse having proper grammar with being helpful. Yet, anyone who has ever googled anything knows when dealing with a search engine, the system’s algorithm is more concerned with keywords than syntax.

Little things like this I believe make the questioning philosophy of Personal Shopper resonate as much as it does. It has signposts of recognizable reality. Yes, there are ghosts, clandestine meetings in hotel rooms, and a murder mystery at the end, but it’s all delivered in a story populated by characters who act and behave largely the same way we do. 

In my original review, I focused on the performance of Kristen Stewart. I called her Maureen one of the best performances of the new year. It remains so and has since been elevated as to one of the best performances I’ve seen period. Constantly moving, rarely still, Stewart’s Maureen is always moving in search of something, always after something, chasing a dream after dream, unfulfilled and unhappy.

Stewart exudes a James Dean coolness rarely allowed women in films. Women must be cold or red hot but cool in the sense of how they stand, and walk is something men are traditionally only allowed to do. While Stewart’s Maureen may always be constantly moving, she is rarely fidgeting except when she is nervous and has a right to be. Coolness is often translated to stoicism or calm.

I mentioned James Dean because though he may be an icon of “coolness” if you watch Rebel Without a Cause you will see an overly emotional jittery mess-but he’s still cool. Maureen tries on a pair of boots and struts up and down the room she is mesmerizing, not because of her body or beauty, but in the way, she effortlessly exudes a sort of relatability in terms of reveling in an everyday thing like trying on shoes.

Personal Shopper is an emotionally vibrant masterpiece about searching for meaning in truth in the modern world without really being about searching for meaning and truth in the modern world. At times it may seem perplexing it is never not absorbing. Assayas and Le Saux delight in Stewart’s ability to captivate while also daring to brush us off-kilter.

Assayas doesn’t cut from one scene to another, he fades to black, but never when it would make sense. Or should I say never when we have been conditioned to expect it? Le Saux and Assayas, towards the end, show us the same scene twice, back to back, with one key difference. The first time we see the scene, the focal point is vacant of any main character.

Le Saux’s camera stares straight ahead as if there is someone in the middle of the frame as it glides down the hallway and into the elevator. It follows the phantom through the lobby and outside, ending with a shot from a distance of outside the hotel entrance. Then we see the scene again, only with Ingo (Lars Eidinger) a man Maureen has met earlier in the film and is an ex of Kyra’s.

The scene plays out exactly the same as before only with Ingo as the focus. As he leaves the hotel the police attempt to arrest him, he pulls a gun, opens fire, and escapes. The only real difference is that there is no final objective shot from the courtyard looking at the hotel.

But what could Le Saux and Assayas be playing at? I think they are merely saying, bemusedly, all of this has happened before and will happen again. It is their way of giving in to the mysteries of life that refute answers but demands questions. For even Maureen in the end, when she does make contact, realizes she will never be sure.

Personal Shopper is a fascinating film I have never grown tired of thinking or talking about.  Stewart’s Maureen is not just a great performance it is a quintessential one, which if there was any justice in the universe, would be studied. Assayas has made a film that poses the types of questions you think of late at night while everyone is asleep and you don’t feel quite as sane as you normally do. He just so happens to throw in the supernatural, the sensual, and the mysterious because let’s be honest, the questions we ask ourselves in the dark tend to be all three.


Next Week: ‘Man of Steel’
Image courtesy of Les films du losnage

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