Olivier Assayas reunites with Kristen Stewart for Personal Shopper, a complex and daring film about grief, modernity and the afterlife.
Stewart plays Maureen, a spiritual medium whose twin brother Lewis (also a medium) suddenly dies of a congenital heart defect that she shares. Determined to remain in Paris, the city where Lewis spent his last days, Maureen spend her days working as a ‘personal shopper’ to Kyra (Nora Van Waltstätten), a demanding celebrity. Devoting most of her time to organising, collecting, and selecting her boss’ wardrobe, Maureen holds out hope for some definitive signal from the spirit world – a hope which is intriguingly stoked when she receives a cryptic, anonymous text message.
“Cinema is at its most powerful when it has something to say. Personal Shopper has lots to say.”
Upon hearing the basic plot, it is hard to visualise any particular tone. This is unsurprising; throughout the film, we are held in a state of complete intrigue – not just about the machinations and possibilities thrown up by the plot, but about exactly what kind of film we are watching. There are, at times, loose pretentions to horror cinema, perhaps the most obvious and worn-out genre that habitually incorporates the afterlife, while other times it plays out like a tense psycho-drama, and there are even elements of social satire. Ultimately, Personal Shopper is boldly free of the limitations and internal rules of genre filmmaking, with the resultant ambiguity a neat reflection of the film’s thematic concerns (namely Maureen’s own uncertainty about the afterlife).
A huge part of the reason it all works so well is the furiously good performance from Stewart in the lead role. Unifying all the different strands of genre and style is the film’s underlying function as a character study, and Maureen is a character of forceful substance. Stewart employs an incredible range of emotion, all given visceral, uniquely characterised energy. There is an extended sequence wherein all the action revolves around a text message conversation. Assayas’ script and direction does a great job at generating tension but it is Stewart’s superlative acting that makes this essentially silent stretch of film an absolutely compelling watch. The director has been effusive in his praise of the former Twilight darling, and between this and Clouds of Sils Maria he has twice drawn from her work of the highest calibre.
Cinema is at its most powerful when it has something to say. Personal Shopper has lots to say – about grief, femininity, technology and mortality. It manages to combine a thematic density with real narrative and stylistic invention, all brought to life by the finest of central performances. It may prove divisive, but Assayas and Stewart have delivered a bold, brilliant and very contemporary film.
Image: Olivier Assayas