Director: Olivier Assayas
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielsen Lie, Ty Olwin, Hammou Graïa, Nora von Waldstätten, Benjamin Biolay, Audrey Bonnet, Pascal Rambert
MPAA Rating: (for some language, sexuality, nudity and a bloody violent image)
Running Time: 1:45
Release Date: 3/10/17 (limited); 3/17/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | March 16, 2017
Personal Shopper presents a series of mysteries that, on their own, would be easy enough for the protagonist to resolve. When combined, though, they create a morass of uncertainty and doubt for the woman at the heart of the film. It doesn't help that she's already in that mindset, having recently experienced a loss that is almost too much to bear. She's also unsure of her job, where she's living, her love life, her strange hobby, and her health—the entirety of her life, really.
There are distinct mysteries here, although we're never sure which ones are connected and how they're intertwined—or how the ones that seem connected really aren't—until the film's extended denouement, at which point everything seems to fall into place. It's more, though, that the questions of each mystery answer themselves. However one puts it, the answers are always passive. The protagonist doesn't ever appear to catch on to it until the film's final seconds. At that point, there's a more important question that is never answered: Does it even matter for her anymore?
In presenting the solution to one mystery, writer/director Olivier Assayas does a formalistic trick that would seem cruel to the protagonist, if not for the fact that he's so sympathetic to her state of unawareness throughout the film. Basically, she is facing toward the camera as something happens behind her. We see it. She cannot. It may be a gag of staging, but vitally, it's not a joke for Assayas. The shot is almost a summation of the lesson of a film that plays out as something of a parable. Think of that old chestnut about the forest and the trees within it that certain people can only see.
Maureen Cartwright (Kristen Stewart), an American living and working in Paris, wants these answers. She's simply incapable of seeing what's in front of her—or, in the aforementioned case, what's right behind her, if she took a second to look. It's not a matter of getting answers she doesn't want. In other words, it's not an issue of confirmation bias or anything of that nature.
Surely, she wants a specific answer when it comes to the recent death of her twin brother. He died from a heart attack before he reached the age of 30, due to a genetic weakness of the heart. Maureen suffers from the same condition. Her doctor says she could live a normal life of an average length. Her brother probably heard something similar.
The siblings shared a gift beyond genetics. They were both mediums, capable of communicating with spirits. The brother was the more talented, more attuned one of the pair. Maureen has come to doubt not only her abilities but also the concept of life after death. She and her brother made a pact: Whoever died first would give the other a sign from the beyond the grave, if such a thing were a reality. Maureen spends her days working as a personal shopper for a successful fashion model named Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten). At night, she goes to her brother's old home and waits for that sign.
At its heart, Assayas' film is a ghost story, and it's one that pretty quickly establishes the reality of spirits. By the end of her first night's stay at the abandoned estate house, she sees something supernatural. In a subsequent visit, she's sent running out of the house, after witnessing the ghost of a woman vomit ectoplasm into the air (Assayas and cinematographer Yoick Le Saux shoot and stage these scenes in the prototypical style of a horror film, using limited light as Maureen wanders around the house, but they're played for the sadness of the search, not the scares).
For most people, this would be solid evidence or, indeed, the ultimate answer to the question of life after death. It's not enough for Maureen, who calmly relates the story of the spirit to her brother's widow Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz). It's clear that the message—of the truth of an afterlife—is secondary to the messenger of that information.
The key—beyond the way Assayas' screenplay effortlessly weaves a series of puzzles and incidents that seem to fit together in one way, until we eventually realize they connect in a completely different way—is in Stewart's performance. There's not much to the character. She's a woman who spends most of the film in a fog of grief and doubt. When she speaks, it's with indecisiveness.
Assayas, though, gives the actress long stretches during which she must play the beats between the major plot points: the scenes of her exploring the house, her fears of upsetting her employer by trying on the model's expensive wardrobe (but really wanting to do so), and a lengthy sequence without any spoken dialogue in which she communicates with the unknown sender of a series of probing text messages (The sender's identity is the second of the film's three central mysteries, but to reveal the third would be unfair). By the way, the last one is a sequence that, in theory, should be a dramatic non-starter. Instead, it's riveting in the way Assayas reveals Maureen's character, creates tension (both from the possibilities of the messenger and the timing of the messages), and paces it, as Maureen travels to London via train.
These moments of silent introspection are the most important for the character, as well as the film as a whole, really. We need to understand the internal process Maureen is going through for the story to work in terms of plotting and underlying intent. Stewart, really, has the entire film on her shoulders, and she carries it with ease.
The answers here do not come easily, although Assayas is precise in revealing what we need to know and when he does reveal it. There's no cheating on his part, although there is some intentional trickiness in the way he saves the significance of a particular sequence of enigmatic shots for the ending. What we get from Personal Shopper, then, is a study of a character's doubt that makes us empathize with her dilemma, because we're left doubting everything we've seen.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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