Director/Screenplay – Olivier Assayas, Producer – Charles Gillibert, Photography – Yorick Le Saux, Visual Effects Supervisor – Anthony Lemestreau, Production Design – Francois-Renaud Labarthe. Production Company – CG Cinema/Vortex Sutra/Sirena Film/Detail Films/Arte France Cinema/Arte Deutschland/WDR
Kristen Stewart (Maureen Cartwright), Sigrid Bouaziz (Lara), Lars Eidinger (Ingo), Ty Olwin (Gary), Nora van Waldstatten (Kyra Gellman), Hamou Graia (Police Officer), Anders Danielsen Lie (Erwin)
Maureen Cartwright is an American woman living in Paris where she works as a personal shopper, buying high-end fashion items and accessories for famous actress Kyra Gellman. She is also lamenting the death of her twin brother Lewis. She has been asked by Lewis’s widow Lara to examine the house where they lived and see if she can detect his spirit. This draws Maureen in to an obsession with contacting the dead. At the same time, she receives text messages from a mystery person who seems to know much about her. At first thinking these are coming from Lewis, the mystery caller probes into who she is and challenges her to take a forbidden step in actually trying on some of the clothing that she buys for Kyra.
Olivier Assayas is a former film critic turned director. Assayas has been directing since Rendez-vous (1985) and has turned out a number of films including Irma Vep (1996), Clean (2004), Boarding Gate (2007), Carlos (2010), Something in the Air (2012) and the previous Kristen Stewart starrer Clouds of Sils Maria (2014). These have gained an increasing critical acclaim. Assayas’s only previous venture into genre material was Demonlover (2002) concerning a snuff internet site.
Personal Shopper opened to a very divided reception – its Cannes premiere was booed but in contrast others have already called it among their best films of the year. I can understand why. It’s a film that doesn’t automatically fall into any easy dramatic structure. It often feels like three or four competing plots all of which circle around the same character and crisscross without quite coalescing and wilfully leave loose ends everywhere.
There is one plot strand about Kristen Stewart attempting to contact the ghost of her twin brother. We see several manifestations of ghostly phenomena even if she remains far less sure about the actuality of there being anything there. The final scene of the film has Kristen enter a room where she hears rapping in answer to her questions. She asks “Are you there or is it just me?” which gets a rap leaving you unclear which half of the question this was in response to. Indeed, this is an ending that arrives at exactly the same place that the classic Henry James ghost story The Turn of the Screw (1898) did – for which see the film version The Innocents (1961) – in leaving one unsure whether the manifestations we have seen are actual phenomena or exist only inside the heroine’s imagination.
There is another whole plot about Kristen Stewart being contacted by a mystery texter, whose identity remains unknown and could possibly be her brother’s ghost. The scene where she takes the Eurorail to London and converses with the texter throughout the journey is the most absorbing section of the film – the first I’ve seen where suspense is entirely generated from a text conversation up on the screen. The mystery caller probes her with personal questions and pushes her to take a step into the forbidden by actually dressing up in some of the high-end fashion items she buys for her celebrity employer, which gives the film a certain illicit thrill. In the last quarter, a murder mystery enters out of the blue, where for a time Kristen is treated as a suspect, but this doesn’t fully get the screen time that you feel like it needs. There is a maybe connection between this and the mystery texter plot as Kristen arrives at the hotel for the second time and a character exits to be arrested by the police for the murder, which implies but does not directly make a connection between the two plot strands.
Personal Shopper is a film that feels unfinished and incomplete. With the exception of the least of the stories, the murder mystery, Assayas fails to resolve any of its plots. He leaves answers beyond our grasp. The connections between the plots feel loose, leave you guessing. These divergent strands leave you with the feel of a film that was on the verge of saying a lot of interesting things but as though the last chapter had been ripped out of the whodunnit.
Olivier Assayas’s new muse is Kristen Stewart. I don’t have a huge liking for Stewart – I did like what she did in Twilight (2008) but in the sequels and thereafter she has sleepwalked her way through a series of roles. Here she seems to be making somewhat of an effort and at least holds the show. She’s still too closed off a screen presence and fails to light the show up. Casting someone like say Scarlett Johanssen or Emma Stone would have given the show a different vibe – but who knows maybe a taciturn and remote, vaguely troubled character is what Olivier Assayas wanted. Getting undressed in a Euro arthouse film used to be the way to signal you were a serious actress and so Kristen takes her top off several times throughout – but I am still sure some acting lessons would have gone a good way further.