Master french filmmaker Olivier Assayas’ latest, Personal Shopper is a genre bending psychological horror film starring Kristin Stewart of Twilight fame, that should in all rights expand audience horizons beyond the non-stop barrage of CGI-laden possession stories and the promise of endless Conjuring films. Refusing to cater to overt rhythms present in his story, Assayas deftly orchestrates one of the finest, and most unique character studies in recent memory, the second film in a career-high row to feature Stewart, who commands virtually every scene in a role that should be remembered next awards season. Ultimately an exploration of the overwhelming power of grief, Personal Shopper‘s unconventional and exciting approach to its subject matter makes it not only one of the finest horror films ever made, but certainly one of the year’s best. Don’t miss it.
Kristin Stewart plays Maureen Cartwright, an assistant to a wealthy celebrity model in Paris. She spends her days in tedium, moving from store to store to collect new outfits and accessories which she brings back to her boss’s huge, vacant apartment, collecting her salary from an envelope on the table. She doesn’t hide her frustration, in the few, brief, meaningful human interactions she is afforded, whether it’s a Skype call with a friend in the Middle East, or her boss’s boyfriend, who takes an uncanny interest in her life and career choice, or her dead brother’s wife, who is now seeing someone else. It’s her brother, she tells people, killed by a rare medical condition that she has as well, who is the only reason she sticks around, waiting for some sign from him beyond the grave, that it’s ok for her to move on. She explains that she is a medium for spirits to communicate, as was he in life, and so she spends her days waiting and waiting for something that never seems to come. Some nights she sleeps over at his empty house, to make sure it is free of sprits so his wife can sell it. One day, out of the blue, Maureen receives a string of mysterious text messages which grow increasingly sinister in tone, initially coaxing her into trying on the outfits her boss forbids her to, yet she so desperately wants, and ultimately thrusting her into a mystery which straddles the line between supernatural and grisly reality.
From beginning to end Personal Shopper remains a character study, in true foreign film fashion, despite its predominant use of English language and borrowing of a beloved young adult film star from the Twilight franchise, as well as a litany of tropes from the horror genre. Assayas frontloads his film with acknowledgement of the supernatural, in a prolonged sequence at Maureen’s brother’s house, where a ghostly presence visits her, introducing itself in swirling light and mist before transforming into a twisted, pernicious visage. Taking this for granted, and dispatching with the audience’s obligatory question of “is she or isn’t she a medium” almost immediately after it forms in our minds, gives Personal Shopper most of its power, and air of unpredictability. Assayas allows himself to jump in and out of genre expectations, refusing to cater to familiar rhythms and positioning the film squarely at Maureen’s perspective. Later, when she becomes embroiled in what has to be the longest and most thrilling text message exchange in film history (something Hitchcock would have certainly indulged had he lived to see the technology), our preconceptions based on countless stories like this that all go the same way constantly pull us back and forth from the reality of who the sender is, based on Roger Ebert’s Law of the Economy of Characters, to an exhilarating sense of wonder about the possibility of them coming from her dead brother. The beauty of Personal Shopper lies in Assayas’ ability to not only suspend disbelief, but to instill desire at a very deep level for the supernatural to be real, and it has the effect of putting us inside the protagonist in a way that is rarely achieved, breaking from her perspective at only a few distinct moments to remind us of its spectral influence, including a shot of a door opening that is striking in its ability to unsettle.
Of course this wouldn’t seem as effortless as it does without the central performance by Kristin Stewart. Shedding any previous image adopted from playing a certain vampire named Belle, one film at a time, she arrives at Personal Shopper after a fantastic performance of a similar character in Assayas’ masterful, career-best, Clouds Of Sils Maria, as assistant to Juliette Binoche’s precocious film and theatre star. In many ways Personal Shopper plays like a backstage pass to that character, who we never learn much about, but can read between the lines enough to know that following her on holiday might espy moods and grimaces not unlike Maureen’s, although without the grief, which is her prevailing influence here. Stewart internalizes Maureen’s grief over her brother’s death so well, coupled with the understanding that her body is also a ticking time bomb, and the advisement by her doctor to lead a stress free life (another classic Hitchcockian set up), that it allows even further empathy when considering her interest in the paranormal is merely a reaction to such a tragic loss. At any given moment there are so many emotions battling within her that disaffected aloofness might be the most genuine expression of their homogeny. Assayas lays the foundation, but it is Stewart who imbues a simple scene of trying on clothes with raging, underlying connotations of crossing a point of no return and inching towards oblivion.
Personal Shopper is a horror film unlike any other, operating on multiple disparate levels that are seldom attempted in the same story, one of tangible, fantastic sensationalism, and studious introspection. It’s final, extended take is one that will have audiences chewing over its mysteries for some time. Like the best genre films it uses its fantastic premise to get at deeper human truths, but distinguishes itself by trading so liberally on the preconceptions of our inherent familiarity with conventions and sensitivity to cause and effect. Its horror is simultaneously very real and very imagined, like the paralyzingly fear that comes from facing your own mortality. We want so much to believe there is more to life than just a journey towards death. Something that cannot be found in the mundanity of material possessions and celebrity culture, something that turns the simple act of trying on clothes into not just a betrayal of duty, but a surrendering to mortality. Personal Shopper is one of the year’s best films.
The Verdict: Rave