DIR/WRI: Olivier Assayas • PRO: Charles Gillibert • DOP: Yorick Le Saux • ED: Marion Monnier • DES: Francois-Renaud Labarthe • COST DES: Jurgen Doering • CAST: Kristen Stewart. Lars Eidinger, Singrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielson Lie, Nora van Waldstatten
Maureen (Stewart) is a personal shopper for crass, A-list model Kyra (Waldstatten), in Paris. Maureen’s reasons for living in Paris are two-fold. She is also a ‘spiritualist’ and this is the city that her twin brother recently died in. He died of the same heart condition that Maureen also has, and growing up they made a pact that whoever died first would make contact to the other from beyond the grave. Maureen frequently visits the house in which her brother died, by night, in the hope that his spirit will give her the message that she longs for.
This singular, daft, diverting psychological drama/ psychic melodrama caused quite a bit of division when shown at Cannes last year, with some critics proclaiming it is a woefully misconceived dud and others praising it as a masterpiece. While it’s easy to understand why a film such as this may cause opinions to be split, it’s hard not to think the truth lies somewhere in between.
The film is undeniably impressive on an aesthetic level. Olivier Assayas conjures up an interesting, uncertain atmosphere through Yorick Le Saux’s smoky cinematography, Francois-Renaud Labarthe’s lush, evocative production design and through Olivier Goinard and Nicolas Moreau’s rich sound design. The sparing use of music amplifies the odd, troubling atmosphere.
The emphasis of modern technology and media is an interesting motif that recurs throughout the film. Many viewers will find themselves frustrated at the fact that a large section in the middle of the film revolves around Maureen exchanging text messages on her phone with a mystery contact who she thinks may be her deceased brother. This is filmed predominantly in a very simple shot reverse shot of Stewart and the phone. While it could certainly be argued that this is highly un-cinematic, there is something admirable about how uncompromisingly stark these sequences are.
Another interesting example of this motif is how Assayas uses the internet as a source of exposition. When researching theories of how the first abstract artists were spiritualists, Maureen browses articles, with the screen being filled with that of her Mac. One extraordinary, discombobulating sequence sees the film transform into a Youtube video of a hokey ’90s TV movie about a Victor Hugo séance. This sequence calls to mind the post-modern, inter-textual jigsaws of Jacques Rivette, if the film perhaps lacks the playfulness of a director such as that. Nevertheless, there is something genuinely exciting and bold about the film’s engagement with form in this manner.
Assayas has said that he wanted to make a film set in a world where the existence of ghosts is not questioned, just accepted. This ties in with his juxtaposition of the supernatural with the fetishization of modern technology and, in Maureen’s job, high-end fashion. Beguiling, though this often is, the film never truly manages to convince us of the veracity of this world. Assayas never seems terribly far from lurching into silliness, such as the poor, CGI presentation of the spirits themselves. This, combined with the utter self-seriousness of the film, sometimes threatens to derail it.
Yet, despite these flaws, the film retains a stubborn individuality that is hard to resist and an atmosphere that is hard to forget. As an examination of grief it is haunting and imaginative. Along with its formal qualities, this aura is maintained through a superb central performance from Stewart. Brimming with insecurity, she essays a sad, scared character, desperate to find a confirmation of some meaning in her life. It’s a terrifically natural, subtle and physical performance, exhibiting Maureen’s profound fragility, even by the way she carries herself. She is in virtually every shot and carries this curious, solemn oddity through its occasional floundering.
15A See IFCO for details
Personal Shopper is released 17th March 2017