By Ben Thumm (Chicago, IL, USA)
It’s only fitting to start this review to point out how Kristen Stewart has been on a quietly great run over this past year starring in films such as Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk, Woody Allen’s Café Society, Certain Women, and now Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper. As for Personal Shopper, Stewart is the lead actress that is essentially present in every single scene and gives her best performance to date as a sister who has recently lost her twin brother to a heart attack. Behind her haunting yet subtle performance, Personal Shopper is an original body of work that gives a deeper insight to the mourning process for a loved one aided by the nature of supernatural elements.
Olivier Assayas – who won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival – not only directed this film but is also responsible for the writing and original screenplay. He is mostly known for most of his writing for many, many French films and as a matter of fact, Personal Shopper takes place right in the heart of Paris. Maureen Cartwright (Stewart) is a young woman who is grieving over the recent death of her twin brother and spends her days as a so called “personal shopper” for a very high profile celebrity named Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten). The story starts with Cartwright wandering throughout an eerie, empty house where it seems that every step and creak of the hollow wooden floor is going to summon something or someone to show itself from the shadows. She’s ultimately searching for any sign to connect with her deceased brother Lewis. There are a few instances that give her pause but nothing that she is particularly looking for.
Once this first sequence concluded for Maureen I started to wonder to myself how this film was going to pan out. Is this going to possibly lean more heavily on horror elements? The supernatural? Or a deeper examination in to the main character? Throughout the whole film Assayas walks the tight rope of exploring each of these themes to further develop the narrative as well as Maureen and as the story progresses, the audience begins to get familiar with who really Maureen is. We are never presented with any flashbacks with her brother as his death occurs off screen and there is minimal mention of her parents or any other family members, if any. Lewis was believed to be a medium and Maureen has stayed put in Paris to further prove that because she believes she may be one too.
The first act does seem to start fairly slow considering it’s laying the foundation for Stewart to take her character and completely immerse herself in the role. Maureen never seems to feel comfortable in her own skin as well as what she does for a living. At one point in a Skype conversation with her boyfriend she states that she absolutely hates Kyra and her job. Stewart’s performance makes for an evocative watch where you almost feel cemented in your seat following her eyes along with her disinterested facial expressions and aloof body language. In fact, the only times where she even feels remotely alive is when she tries on the extremely expensive and elegant dresses she purchases for her boss. But this sense of euphoria is bogged down by her being ashamed and fearful considering she had been caught by Kyra before. Even though she is afraid of the consequences, it’s one of the few instances in the film where we see Maureen able to free herself momentarily of the grief that she has been battling for the last six months.
For all of us we will go through the grieving process at one point or another. The actual process itself will differ for person to person as well as from time to time. For some the process will be shorter than others and vice versa. Assayas drops his main character right in the midst of the process and tests her limits and boundaries to the fullest extent. He tells this story as if it is a real life ghost story and puts the audience in the position to question what if you could make contact with your departed loved ones. What would you want to say? What would make you be at peace with them? Stewart is the driving force for all of these questions and once her grieving process reaches its’ completion, Personal Shopper ends up being one of the most original and unique films of the past year.
Ingo: What are you doing in Paris?
Maureen: I’m a personal shopper. She’s very high profile, she can’t do normal things, so I assist her.
Ingo: You’ve nothing better to do besides dress Kyra?