Personal Shopper

April 14, 2017
Kristen Stewart frocks up in Personal Shopper
Kristen Stewart frocks up in Personal Shopper

Watching a film by Olivier Assayas is like spying on strangers from around a corner. The camera lurks in the shadows. It sneaks along behind characters and captures them from unusual angles. This is unsettling enough, but in Personal Shopper Assayas has created an entirely new genre: the fashionista-ghost story-cyberstalker-crime drama, achieved with an insouciance that makes it seem he might break off at any time before the tale is told.

By any standards Personal Shopper is a strange and original film, which is why I’ve decided to write about it this week instead of the very good courtroom drama, Denial, in which Timothy Spall puts in a memorable performance as Holocaust denier, David Irving. Denial is conventional well-made drama but Personal Shopper is a film that defies expectations and flirts with failure. It won Assayas the Best Director Award at Cannes last year, even though it was booed by audiences.

Personal Shopper is compulsively watchable but never quite satisfying. Some directors need to have their characters explain every action but Assayas allows Kristen Stewart – for this is virtually a one-woman show – to remain sullen and mysterious throughout.

Nothing could suit Stewart better. After those forgettable days in teen vampire flicks her screen persona has taken on a introverted aspect. She doesn’t exactly curl her lip in disdain but she often seems bored, restless and vaguely unhappy. One wonders if she’s really acting. The full repertoire of blank stares and twitchy movements is on display in Personal Shopper, and critics and public can’t get enough.

Whatever Kristen Stewart has, it seems to have huge appeal, and not just for surly teenage girls with whom she has much in common. The French gave her a Cesar award for her role in Assayas’s previous movie, The Clouds of Sils Maria, where she played the personal assistant to a famous actress. In Personal Shopper she is once again the American flunky in Paris, this time to an unspecified celebrity named Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten) who hasn’t got time to buy – or borrow – her own designer frocks and accessories.

In the previous movie Stewart was “Val”, this time she’s “Maureen” – both equally dowdy names for France’s new It girl. When she’s not zipping around on a scooter from one boutique to the next, or even training to London to visit a designer, Maureen is trying to communicate with the dead. More specifically, she’s waiting for a sign from her dead twin, Lewis, who had the same mediumistic abilities and the same weak heart. The siblings made a pact that if one of them died, he or she would send a signal to the survivor.

This may seem tacky for a filmmaker as cerebral as Assayas, but he plunges wholeheartedly into the realm of the supernatural. In the old house owned by her brother, Maureen encounters a blob of ectoplasm that belongs to an unknown, hostile spirit. It’s a genuinely creepy scene, although it won’t satisfy hard-core horror fans that crave buckets of gore.

Back at Kyra’s place she meets Ingo (Lars Eidinger) who has been keeping company with the celebrity when her husband wasn’t watching. He seems just as creepy as the ghost, in a studiously intellectual manner. When Maureen starts receiving anonymous text messages we immediately suspect it’s Ingo calling, but perhaps it might be someone from the realm of the dead. By this stage of the movie we’ve already witnessed Maureen’s encounters with the spirit world and are ready to accept the idea of a hot-line to the after-life.

Maureen is disturbed by the insistent messages from this unknown caller who says he wants to “possess” her, but she’s also excited. The caller has a knack for probing her secret desires, such as trying on the designer clothes she buys for Kyra. As she rarely seems to wear anything but skinny jeans and polo shirts it’s surprising to find Maureen has an urge to sample the haute couture, including one harness-like contraption that looks like it was made for a bondage parlour. It’s not an infatuation with glamour but a need to try on another person’s skin. Does Maureen want to be someone else, asks her anonymous caller? “Yes,” she admits, but she doesn’t know who.

The nature of the story changes with one violent incident, and so does Stewart’s acting style. She not only does “sullen” but also “freaking out”. If this were a Hitchcock film it would be the beginning of a series of suspenseful incidents, but Assayas rushes through the crime theme as if it were only a distraction from the big story of Maureen’s maudlin self-obsession.

While many viewers might envy Maureen’s job she sees it as an empty experience that brings in an income. The only thing that keeps her in Paris is her longing to make contact with her dead brother. Assayas’s sneaky camera allows the viewer to register Lewis’s presence on several occasions while his sister remains in the dark. We know he’s out there, we accept that ghosts exist. It’s much harder to understand that Camus-like state of low-level ennui that haunts Maureen’s every move.

Personal Shopper
Written & directed by Olivier Assayas
Starring Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielsen Lie, Ty Olwin, Nora von Waldstätten
France/Germany, rated MA15+, 105 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 15th April, 2017