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Personal Shopper

Not so easy living meaningfully in this material world. Harder still if you're alternately seeking out and haunted by restless spirits of whatever realms that might exist beyond our apparent everyday reality. Such is the quandary of Maureen (Kristen Stewart), going about Paris by motor scooter, given access to nether worlds of high fashion and spirits in limbo - each shimmering, alluring its way, each gaping with emptiness, even menace.

This is the second consecutive film from Olivier Assays - himself something of a restless, shifting spirit - in which which a drifting, nebulous presence draws its main character. In Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) it was the "Maloja Snake," a cloud formation meandering its sublime way through an Alps mountain pass by morning that draws a visiting actress (Juliette Binoche) to its presence. Both "Sils Maria" and Personal Shopper feature Ms. Stewart as a personal assistant to exalted women. Just as the former was written with La Binoche in mind, so was the latter written for Kristen Stewart, she the magnetic presence that arrests one through Personal Shopper's 110 minutes, however the film's plot and themes might fail to completely take form.

It's difficult to recall a film of recent years that so heavily leans on its star. Ms. Stewart is front and center in most every scene (save perhaps the film's most ambiguous interval, as characters corporeal and otherwise are seen exiting a hotel where the haunted Maureen has been summoned) and generally not having a lot of laughs. Hers is such a raw, ever-present performance that you want to check in with her after the film. Make sure she's okay. Perhaps give her a hug. 

The actor and director make a natural, fluid team. Assayas, as ever, provides supple direction. Slightly detached perhaps, but never cold. Scenes are allowed to build to their level of drama or suggestion. Generally they are slightly truncated, kept brief with a fade to black (with a couple of notable exceptions). This is both eminently natural and highly effective as a means of storytelling, a logical ambiguity that is never milked. There's enough emotion, power in Stewart's performance without any tawdry lingering for effect. Clearly there is trust between the director and star.

When Stewart appears in the film, dropped off at vacated Parisian home, she's a cool but hardly imposing figure in her dark jeans and black leather jacket with fur collar, slightly unwashed hair swept up and over her head like a hipster pompadour. Viewed at any distance, it gives the impression of a kid waiting for a growth spurt, the young body yet to find proportion with its head. 

But with this particular young woman, for every  one part awkward,  there are nine parts gracefully striking.  Beyond Maureen's obvious physical appeal, which surely didn't hurt her in acquiring the rarefied position (and her slight physique allows her to both stand in for her model employer when she's late for a photo shoot and occasionally indulge in the taboo of trying on a piece of haute couture) or moving about in the precincts of fashion, there is a blend of the childlike and vulnerable with a quiet sense of authority that allows her to operate credibly in both of her strange and often forbidding worlds.

Ms. Stewart let's those contradictions breathe. Her voice has both a classic sub-soprano timbre that wouldn't be out of place in a film of the 1930's, married with an an angular diction that is all 21st-century.  There is a kind of vibrato of unease that we've heard before from the actor, but never more frequently and effectively than is the case in Personal Shopper.  The vulnerability seems quite natural to this tormented young woman and Stewart is present, real and often physically affected in the midst of every such scene of difficulty for Maureen.  However, one need go back only as far as her previous collaboration with Assayas to see how differently she grappled with a seemingly similar role, attending on great forces (or personages) while balancing her own shifting personal existence. 

 Olivier Assays has been shrewd enough to see those apparent contradictions in Stewart and create a character, a space if you will, where she is free to "lose it" in her terms, without losing her sense of character:  “I’d seen her in many films, but I always had the instinct that she could go much further,” he adds. “I tried to give her the message that it was OK to run, to be herself, to follow her instincts. She has this extraordinary combination of incredible control and simultaneous freedom. I have a hard time thinking of another actress who has a similar combination and who knows that well how to use it.”

We see Maureen's steeliness as she calmly handles representatives of fashion designers or a salesman at Cartier.  So too as she enters that vacant chateau at the film's outset.  Nothing is at first explicit, but we come to realize that she's awaiting some sign from her recently-deceased brother (who shared a heart defect with his sister that imposes even more uncertainty on Maureen's life).  She's also trying to determine for the would-be buyers of the residence that there are no malevolent spirits present.  She walks about the largely empty building, in which a growing feeling of dread is heightened by the sound of trodden old wooden floors, flung shutters and the creaking complaint of  French doors jarred out of their long-frozen embrace.     

Maureen encounters no visible spirits on that first visit to the shuttered building, much as there are signs - water left running, a cross darkening the old wallpaper high on a stairway wall.  It's surprising to realize that most of this occurs not in the dead of night, but late afternoon into twilight, potentially the most chilling hour for a nervous stroll through fear and the unknown, enough retiring light present to really give those shadows a kind of liquid depth.  But Maureen goes about her work in such a determined manner that you wonder if this slight figure of a person holds a fearless spirit.    

Only during a later, second visit does Maureen actually see a ghostly figure.  But it's not the brother from whom she's desperately awaiting a sign.  The swirling figure of a woman materializes near her.  We find out she's not so fearless after all.  Maureen runs to another room where she cowers in child-like terror against a wall, hands over her head.  Assayas makes a surprisingly and relatively brave choice with the vaporous forms briefly seen in the film, instead of defaulting to more common special effects.  This, apparently, reflecting a greater interest  in 19th-century "spirit" photography than the frame-jumping, sound effect pounding cheap thrills of most contemporary horror films.  As for Stewart, this is one of those moments when she very believably loses it, whimpering as any frightened child (or adult) might.  

The trouble with any ghostly "it," any supernatural presence in film, is maintaining tension once the thing is actually seen.  Assayas' ghost doesn't entirely work, but there is a fascination that leaves a  slightly chilling residue once the unsettled being vomits a cloud of ectoplasm and then swirls away.  As for Maureen, she grabs her bag and runs for her life.  The young woman's very relatable fear, coupled with her lack of pretense - she considers herself a medium but professes no great wisdom of supernatural motivations - is one of several instances where Assayas' writing and Stewart's performance combine to form this fairly mesmerizing character.  

It is in the uncertain blend of menace from forces living and possibly not where Personal Shopper  provides its most frightening moments.  Maureen arrives at the Paris flat of her supermodel employer,  Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten) to deliver some clothing and a few boxes from Cartier.  When she gets no response to her call of greeting, Maureen goes into the bedroom to find a very ominous and dense stain of blood on the bed and more streaked on the floor.  In the bathroom she finds what we expect her to find.  As she begins to retreat from the flat in a daze, she notices a light at the back of the dwelling and a terrible banging, like the clean up work or warnings of further mayhem from some beast.  Maureen actually begins to walk toward the danger, not away - allowing us that most enduring horror show audience experience, the temptation to shout "Get out!" - before survival instincts kick in and she flees the flat, the building and the area.  

It is, presumably, either some supernatural being bang, bang, banging at the back of the dead woman's apartment, or her human murderer.  Be it the latter, the chief suspect would seem to be her jilted boyfriend, Ingo (Lars Eidinger, also in Clouds of Sils Maria), whom Maureen had met on her previous visit to deliver fabulous frocks and trinkets.  The slightly oily man had taken an interest in Maureen, inspiring a rare lapse into confessional conversation about her work and life.  Shortly after this meeting, during a trip to pick up yet more designer clothing in London, Maureen begins to be badgered with texts from an unknown sender.  Ingo is the obvious suspect here as well, but given that the sender of the texts seems to know her every movement and not be in any way physically present Maureen,  in her harried state, is prompted to ask if texts are coming from another realm.  Is it her brother?

This menacing text conversation plays out between two countries and a considerable length of time in Personal Shopper, broken only when Maureen, in fear and weariness, turns off her phone.  The long digital pursuit ends frighteningly and masterfully with a series of undelivered texts veritably hurled at the woman - indicating that the sender is outside her building, is coming up, is on the landing outside her door; these having piled up while she briefly slept with her phone off.  Skillfully as the sequence is handled, it seems at first blush a commentary on the ubiquity of smart phones; even while beholding the big screen we are sadly and inevitably drawn to the emptiness of the little screen.  But this is really another instance of the director unafraid that the trappings of youth or modernity might compromise his art.  Assayas is a man in his early sixties who makes very polished films.  And yet, by no stretch of the imagination is this cinema du papa.  The phantom texts are actually a very apt, even ghostly symbol of disconnection and uncertainty of the film's haunted main character and her lonely quest.   

After she misses the increasingly-aggressive texts from her tormentor, Maureen is directed for a second time to a bland Paris hotel.  Her first visit comes after a key card is left in her physical mailbox.   On that first arrival she arrives and changes into one of her employer's garments, a particularly brilliant, spangled dress.  It's not clear if she was instructed to thus garb herself or if this is a natural continuation of the conversation in which Maureen had confessed a desire to wear the clothing primarily because it is taboo.  The presence of haute couture and the outposts of extreme luxury are not present in Personal Shopper merely so it can be pointed out how vacuous is this world.  In one sense, these are simply the things and places that constitute this character's work.  But there is also the obvious parallel of the realms of fashion and the supernatural, their allure as well as their emptiness, expressed with perfect, wordless eloquence when we see Maureen in that spangled garment.  The dress shimmers, projecting an elusive, spectral light.  The material and the metaphysical briefly flow as one. 

With Personal Shopper, Olivier Assays continues his exploration of the indefinite.  Which is to say life.  The director's mercurial efforts move on with high style, admirable energy and curiosity.  Personal Shopper doesn't quite materialize into greatness, but operates with the director's usual wisdom of prompting questions without a tidy and equal provision of answers.  Knowing that life in all its forms goes on with or without us.       

Much as she knows that the murderer has been apprehended, any sense of certainty or resolution continues to prove elusive to Maureen when we leave her in Personal Shopper.  Traveling all the way to Oman to join her boyfriend, she is followed or at least joined by a spirit in limbo.  Is it her brother?  Does it mean harm?  There is only more ambiguous, ominous banging.  Fare thee well, Maureen. 

  Kristin Stewart, of course, moves in her own lofty realms.  Much as her personal trajectory continues to arc into brilliant and populous spaces, here's hoping she continues, at least part of the time, to stray from the bright daylight of fame and security.



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