Kristen Stewart proves once again that she can work with the air of mystery that surrounds her in her newest collaboration with Olivier Assayas. Mixed conventions, misplaced ghosts and psychological thrills are at the heart of Personal Shopper which plays with the genres from the very beginning but slips into predictability at times.
Maureen has just one response for a standard small-talk question, “what do you do”. “I’m waiting,” she responds – even if she knows that many people would ridicule her vision of what she’s waiting for. Not so long ago, her twin brother died in Paris, and she’s suffering from the same life-threatening heart condition – so she stays there, anticipating that one sign from the afterlife that he promised her when he was still alive. He was a medium and she suspects she can contact the departed souls, too. When she’s not hunting for Lewis’s spirit, she works as a personal shopper for a fashion icon Kyra – a blogger, a model, a celebrity, we don’t know that. She hates it but is stubborn to stay where she is. Soon, she gets wired into a bundle of events that spin her life out of control.
What we realise quickly is that Personal Shopper is far from your regular horror film. Even if it’s centred around the ghosts of the past, there’s much more to Olivier Assayas’s movie. It escapes the boundaries enforced by the genres: while the visible spirits that float around the heroine are a standard horror trick, psychological thriller bits rise to prominence really quickly in a text exchange that remains as the film’s centrepiece for a while, wrapped up with drama. This film doesn’t fit a standard mould; musings about the afterlife, coping with death and finding your true self, mixed with chilling action lead you on and push the audience to think.
The fear, coming from so many sources in this film, puts the main character as somewhat oppressed despite her coolness. It’s explored by the predators surrounding her, be it her own thoughts or the dangers coming from outside her subconsciousness. Maureen seems to face the fears by doing things that are “forbidden” – and sometimes we feel that all of the people (and supernatural creatures) she crosses paths with are there as a form of her therapy. She sets out looking for answers, she’s been returning with many more questions; and she needs to deal with herself first and foremost. That’s why Personal Shopper wins as character analysis.
However, the mix of the genres doesn’t always prove fully satisfying. Since the film tries to follow up on so many possible storylines, it sometimes forgets to rule some possibilities out or offer a satisfying explanation. It’s particularly surprising if a hint or an interesting theme (such as the ghost that appears at Lewis’s house) is shown to the cinemagoer and then left behind. What’s more, when you pay attention to details, you’ll have your end of film theory coined pretty quickly. Although you’ll have to wait for the final to prove yourself right or wrong, the ending feels a little weaker due to its predictability.
It’s also another collaboration of Assayas and Kristen Stewart after phenomenal Clouds of Sils Maria – and the duo also make a fantastic team this time round. The role seems to be written for her effortless coolness; she is self-assured, confident, comfortable in her character’s skin. And some of the best bits of her acting seem to be very simple: a girl texting on the train might not sound exciting at all. But Stewart manages to create electricity between her and the character on the other side. The phone has never been a more vital gadget on the big screen, a point of obsession. She’s tangled in a building up conversation; her fear and curiosity, however, are vivid throughout.
What supports the growing tension are the visuals – and the aforementioned spirit is just one of them. With its darker colour palette and the distinction between Maureen in dark rooms at night and Maureen in the sunlight, the atmosphere of places is turned up by the lighting set-up. Interestingly, camera’s lens seems to love the leading lady so much that it hardly ever lets her out of its sight. Because Maureen never seems to disappear, we also get a certain sense of intimacy and understanding when we observe her, and she makes use of it to create emotions that stay with the audience and sometimes act a bit like a smoke-screen that separates us from the surprise that’s awaiting us the next minute.
Personal Shopper is a cocktail of different concepts with a spectacular leading performance from Kristen Stewart, which redeemed herself from criticism with films like Clouds of Sils Maria, Cafe Society and Certain Women. Her strong new role, combined with stunning cinematography that serves the story, creates the essence of this film. And even if there are moments that traverse unexplored grounds to leave them behind, or worse, to bring a hint of predictability, they are minor cracks on the surface of beautifully made and well-performed chilling, spooky flick that mixes conventions whenever it can.
Personal Shopper opens in the UK on the 17th of March.