Personal Shopper (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Personal Shopper (2017)

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Maureen feels alone.  Cut off from her boyfriend, sent on shopping errands for a perpetually absent boss, and spending long nights alone in empty houses.  She begins to question what exists in this world or the next as she experiences paranormal signs that may prove her recently deceased twin brother is not so far away.  Olivier Assayas wrote the screenplay for and directs Personal Shopper, which stars Kristen Stewart.

After my grandmother died, I made the two and a half hour drive to her old home in Hartwell.  She had lived with my mother for the past five years so the home was in mostly the same condition as I left it during my last visit in 2012.  Walking through the home, peeking through the drawers, and letting memories drift, I caught a bit of a scare when I opened a closet nearly overflowing with my grandfather's suits.  I touched the fabric, looked at the different colors and styles, and sat on the floor for a moment thinking about the possibility of starting a new life with this wardrobe.  A loud crash disrupted my meditation and, after confirming it was just my water bottle falling prey to gravity, I closed the closet on the idea I can be anyone but myself.

Olivier Assayas' Personal Shopper operates in this ghostly space.  It's populated with characters whose fractured sense of identity is further splintered by the death of a loved one.  No one seems to exist the world of Personal Shopper.  They're all travelers, temporarily trying on the guise of a sister, boyfriend, celebrity, or whatever image gives them temporary stability in an existence that seems ready to throw them away at whatever moment.  In the creaks of the old homes and clinking sounds of fancy jewelry I felt through the world of people who had no place in it trying to convince themselves the next job or shopping spree will give it all meaning.

Stewart's last outing with Assayas had her across the screen from one of the greatest actresses who ever lived. Now her primary screen partner is her cell phone, and still she produces one of the year's only great performances.

Personal Shopper is a lonely film.  The most tension in this maybe ghost story comes from Maureen (Kristen Stewart) alternately conversing via text and arguing with an anonymous presence that knows more details about her than her boyfriend.  Assayas keeps us at arms length from making physical sense of the presence that seems to be haunting Maureen.  So much of Personal Shopper is shot with precise control but in those moments Maureen lets go for some happiness Assayas switches into a hand-held camera shot that lingers on her body for a moment before politely walking away.

Normally this kind of voyeurism might bother me, but Maureen is written with such specific nuance that I understood how she might welcome the camera's gaze.  She clings to the edges of a high class material world as a shopper for Kyra (Nora van Waldstätten).  There's this undefined "other thing" Maureen feels she should be doing, but spends her time sleeping in large abandoned homes, cramped apartments, and allows herself a moment in Kyra's fancy bedroom.  Assayas' voyeurism is tempered by Maureen's wish to understand what it is about herself that makes her feel so restless.  At least the presence behind the camera has an idea of who Maureen is as she splits herself into increasingly frail slivers of different persona.

With Assayas behind the camera Personal Shopper was sure to be an enigmatic treat no matter who was in front of it.  The smartest decision he made was to team up with Stewart who faces some of the most difficult performance challenges of her career.  Consider how she handles the moment Maureen begins to receive those messages from the anonymous presence.  Stewart rips Maureen apart from the inside with her hesitation, fear, and intrigue playing out almost entirely on her lips and eyes.  She holds back the scream lesser performers might have gone for, smartly realizing the real tension is in the threat of her losing it in front of strangers instead of succumbing to the fear.

We're so overwhelmed with male-dominated news stories of "method acting" that less observant viewers might miss the radical transformation Stewart undertakes with each phase of Personal Shopper.  She's never more vulnerable than when Maureen's haunted with the possibility her dead brother might be communicating with her, letting her gaunt eyes give way to a slowly strengthening posture as her questions of the unseen presence become more akin to declarations.  Then watch the almost blank fascination she projects when she allows herself the pleasure of wearing Kyra's wardrobe.  Stewart doesn't slip into glee, more a state of confident if bewildered enjoyment, feeling the power of the clothing as she observes herself on a different path.

Assayas does not make much hay of the paranormal intrusions into Maureen's life, leaving open the possibility she is seeing signs where there are none.

With no big stars like Juliette Binoche or Jesse Eisenberg to share the screen with, Stewart is free - for perhaps the first time in her career - to give herself completely to the depths of her talent.  Assayas' sparse backdrops allow her this space.  Personal Shopper lives and dies by Stewart's tiniest gestures, though it is buoyed by other excellently nuanced characters scratched out in whispers and restraint.  My favorite may be Ingo (Lars Eidinger), whose casual conversation could be his way of trying to keep himself together or letting the splinters of himself find Maureen's weakest points to later draw blood.

If asked what Personal Shopper is about, I guess I'd have to say it's the folly of trying to find oneself in the catharsis of grief.  But that does no favors to the texture and patience of Assayas and Stewart.  No one processes death so simply, and attempts to communicate liminal experiences leave us at a loss for words in our most sensitive moments.  Assayas and Stewart, once again, have made one of the best films of the year, and I don't even think we've seen the full extent of what Stewart is capable of.

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Personal Shopper (2017)

Screenplay written and directed by Olivier Assayas.
Starring Kristen Stewart.

Posted by Andrew

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