Director: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielsen Lie, Ty Olwin, Hammou Graïa, Nora von Waldstätten, Benjamin Biolay
When I was at university many moons ago (three years ago), I would often have days where I had multiple deadlines to meet . On December 21st 2012 I had an essay on vampires in literature, an essay on the films of Douglas Sirk and an essay on Tess of The D’Urbervilles. Needless to say I worked right up until the deadline to write them. With minutes to spare I gave them one final proofread and felt the distinct feeling of being torn between thinking that what I had written was either genius, or really stupid. Fast-forward almost five years and I had the same feeling when leaving the cinema screen after watching ‘Personal Shopper’ – was that genius, or really stupid?
Days later and I’m still not quite sure. However, I can conclude three things. 1) It’s not as clever as it thinks it is or wants to be, 2) I wouldn’t be able to explain everything that happens, 3) I may not have completely understood all of it, but I can still admire and appreciate it. For all the strangeness that occurs – and there’s a lot of it – there are some clear things to celebrate about the film. The premise for one is excellent – an American 20-something living in Paris works as a personal shopper for a socialite whilst grieving for her twin brother, determined to make contact with him in the afterlife. This might actually be possible as she is a medium who made a vow with her brother that if either of them should die they would come back and make contact.
Within that premise, and within aspects of the film, there’s a real Gothic ghost story appeal. It brings to mind various works of Gothic fiction, from classics such as those of Edgar Allan Poe or Charles Dickens (excluding that Christmas one…) and contemporary fiction; there’s touches of Marcus Sedgewick’s ‘Heart of Another’ to name but a few.
But what the film really succeeds in is portraying the omnipresent paranoia that hovers over modern day existence. Technology in film never feels truly realistic, it’s either shoe-horned in, used inconsistently or, due to the time it takes to take film from idea to screen, really dated. A huge chunk of ‘Personal Shopper’ is devoted to text exchange Maureen (Stewart) has with an unknown number. Assayas portrays the exchange in a subtle way that reflects the realities of texting. The focus is solely on Stewart as the text stays where it should be, on the phone. It does not dominate the screen. She does. We watch her reaction to the message, her possessing of it, her hesitant or hurried reply and her anxious waiting for a response. It’s a correspondence the majority of the planet will be well versed in, yet is not one we often see on the screen. It’s refreshing and immensely effective. This long sequence portrays the psychology of cyber-stalking, subtlety implying that this is the modern day equivalent of haunting – a malicious and unseen presence making us fear for our very existence.
The film also has some of the more familiar haunting – when Maureen visits her brother’s home and spends the night in the desperate hope he will make contact. These scenes are reliant on the traditional spooks caused by creaking floorboards and ghostly shadows (created by excellent use of lighting). These moments are under-explored and less developed than the film’s more psychological terrors, something which is not clear from the film’s trailers and advertising. For those under the impression that this is a horror film may be disappointed; instead the film is part-psychological thriller, part-reflection on modern day living and part-clothing pornography.
The greatest success of the film has to be Kristen Stewart’s performance, an offering that deserves to be remembered in the months (too soon to suggest as an awards contender?) and hopefully years to come. Her performance is enthralling, somehow simultaneously hollow & ambiguous yet listless and agitated. She’s a fascinating presence to watch, illuminating the screen in a character study about a character that refuses to allow herself to be understood. Mainly because she cannot understand herself. It is her innate need to her from her brother that drives her, as does an apparent want to be someone else- displayed in an almost fetishistic desire to wear Kyra’s (her boss, played by von Waldstätten) clothes. Maureen exists, it would be near impossible to describe as lives, wearing an ice-cold exterior. She seems impenetrable – a fact that is unsurprising considering the absence of sympathetic figures within her life – which makes the moments when she loses control, when vulnerability penetrates her steely exterior, all the more terrifying.
These are the moments where you are most unsure as to the nature of what has happened and whether they are figments of her imagination- the moments you’ll be examining with friends who’ve seen the film as you desperately hope they have the answers you don’t. Which is ironic considering the film’s main message seems to be about connection, the desperate search for it and the devastation the wrong connection can cause. I’m still not sure if as a whole entity it’s genius or really stupid – yet I do know it’s unsettling, fascinating in a way the ‘other’ can only be and sure to linger on my mind for a long time to come.