Editor’s Note: Personal Shopper is currently playing in limited theatrical release.
Like any good French filmmaker, writer-director Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours, Demonlover, Irma Vep) has crafted both an offscreen persona as a hyper-intellectual filmmaker and openly courted, if not controversy, then audience disengagement and alienation. Under one interpretation, a true auteur and mainstream filmmaking rarely, if ever, overlap. By definition, an auteur has the “vision” thing and it doesn’t quality as a vision unless it’s idiosyncratically singular. Art doesn’t qualify as art unless it reflects the personality of a single, controlling vision(ary). Under both definitions, Assayas qualifies as an auteur and his latest film, Personal Shopper, as art. Stubbornly unconventional, abruptly shifting or segueing between different, seemingly disparate genres and tone, Personal Shopper reflects a tradition in what used to be called European Art Cinema, but given its decades-long influence outside of Europe, something closer to interstitial cinema, a cinema meant to reflect the non-dramatic nature of reality, subjective or otherwise.
To Assayas’ considerable credit, he moves between genres and conventions with a deftness, subtlety, and grace atypical for most filmmakers, a reminder that you have to know the narrative rules before you break them.
When we meet Kristen Stewart’s character, Maureen, she’s not engaging in the seemingly meaningless task of shopping for her boss, a little-seen, imperious celebrity or starlet. Because she’s an expat living in Paris and doesn’t have a trust fund or a wealthy significant other to rely on, Maureen spends most of her day flitting between one expensive clothes shop and another, stopping occasionally for shoes and jewelry. Maureen’s talent lies in her seemingly uncanny ability to pick and chose only those items that will meet with her boss’ approval. She has another talent, however, a talent that takes Personal Shopper away from the conventional trappings of a character study or psychological drama and into the realm of supernatural horror: She claims she’s a medium, sensitive to the spirit world. Assayas leaves little doubt, however, about Maureen’s extra-sensory perception. It exists, but whether the spirit world exists or whether Maureen, perhaps possessing a different power altogether, somehow conjures the sights and sounds associated with the spirit world remains a question that Assayas deliberately chooses not to answer.
The little we do know about Maureen – the loss of her twin brother, Louis, just a few months earlier – and how it’s come to define her waking and dreaming live, gives Personal Shopper the semblance of a narrative: She’s not just another itinerant, peripatetic, twenty-something American drifting through Paris and/or Europe: She’s waiting, waiting for a sign from Louis that’s crossed over into the afterlife. Only then perhaps, will Maureen move on with her life, including a patient boyfriend living and working in Oman who repeatedly invites her to visit him there. Instead, she waits, numbed by his loss, but letting an otherwise menial job – the 99% serving the 1% in case you’re wondering – shape and direct her daily life. It’s enough for Maureen even as her brother’s girlfriend and her boyfriend encourage her to get past the grief thing (short answer: you never really do).
Assayas qualifies as an auteur and his latest film, Personal Shopper, as art. Stubbornly unconventional, abruptly shifting or segueing between different, seemingly disparate genres and tone, Personal Shopper reflects a tradition in what used to be called European Art Cinema.
Assayas adds another narrative layer to Personal Shopper, however, when Maureen begins to receive intrusive texts from an unknown number. Rather than simply blocking the number, Maureen lets herself get carried along into a new, potentially dangerous adventure. Metaphorically, Maureen segues from psychological/grief drama with supernatural overtones to the equivalent of a Japanese horror film with technology – bringing us together virtually, but separating us physically – as the conduit for a potentially lethal, existential threat. To Assayas’ considerable credit, he moves between genres and conventions with a deftness, subtlety, and grace atypical for most filmmakers, a reminder that you have to know the narrative rules before you break them. Ever the continental filmmaker, Assayas leaves the audience not with closure or anything like closure, but the opposite, an inconclusive, ambiguous ending, an ending intentionally left open to interpretation. It’s not meant to cheat the audience, however, but to make them willing and equal partners: They (we) too can play an active, not a passive role in deciding what comes next, what happens to Maureen and whether she receives the answers to her questions seconds after the screen goes dark or fades to white.
And in Kristen Stewart – oft maligned, oft mocked for her co-starring role in the Twilight series – Assayas has found an equal partner. Stewart appears in practically every scene, often alone, leaving only Assayas and his camera, constantly probing every micro-expression for any hint of her inner life, as her only, constant companion. It’s a difficult, challenging role, the kind of role that would easily expose a lesser actress as a poseur short on talent or ability. Outside of the Twilight series, Stewart has turned in fine, even commendable work (Café Society, Adventureland, Into the Wild), but it’s been her earlier collaboration with Assayas, Clouds of Sils Maria, where Stewart proved herself an actress capable of a subtlety and depth missing from her work stateside. Their second collaboration proves that Clouds of Sils Maria wasn’t a fluke, but a compelling argument of what we can expect from Stewart in the foreseeable future.
To Olivier Assayas’ considerable credit, he moves between genres and conventions in Personal Shopper with a deftness, subtlety, and grace atypical for most filmmakers, a reminder that you have to know the narrative rules before you break them. Kristen Stewart turns in a fine performance, and has proved herself an actress capable of a subtlety and depth.