Film Review – Personal Shopper
Communication is a key factor in Olivier Assayas’ new movie Personal Shopper. Concepts of not just the means of communication but the reason for, and the things communicated during, are both subtly and prominently woven throughout the structure. Spiritualism is a religion that was formed in the late 1800s, around the end of the Civil War. It presupposed that there is a life after death and that through the proper means, communication with the dead can be had. Of course, over a century and half aspects of the religion have changed but the basic concepts are still held. Here Assayas brings in concepts of Spiritualism to the private life behind the fashion world in France.
Maureen Cartright (Kristen Stewart) is a personal shopper for a prominent model living in Paris but also happens to be a Medium. Spiritualists consider Mediums the go-between for communicating with the dead. Maureen’s twin brother Lewis has recently passed away and Maureen believes Lewis may be trying to communicate with her. Whether this is considered deviant in belief is not really up for question here. Assayas’ presents Maureen and most of the world she inhabits as either a part of this religion or accepting of it. She speaks freely with friends about it and openly admits to failures and frustrations in her goal.
Perhaps one of Assayas’ best touches is the frankness with which his characters speak to each other. The inhibited boundaries of communication that populate most stories is otherwise lifted in dialogue between characters. Words aren’t hidden to create tension, move the plot along or hide character motivations. All of these things are fully on display. Maureen moves around her world, picking out clothes for her boss Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten) and making deliveries. Along the way she has casual but honest conversations with complete strangers.
Stewart is laser-focused in her performance: Jittery, obsessed, insecure. She deftly carries the movie, which features an extended period of time with her spent in a text exchange with what may or may not be a ghost. And here’s where the movie works the best. Assayas’ direction delivers a slow, deliberate pace, allowing the movie to soak in Maureen’s movements, so when she starts receiving these unknown texts that reveal an intimate and immediate knowledge of her place and being, we stay transfixed on the back and forth.
For a number of shots the camera holds on Maureen’s hands as she types on her iPhone. I can pretty confidently say this is the first movie to make the ellipses of someone typing a response actually exciting. As Maureen and this Unknown commune, honesty becomes more open. Questions probe at an underlying sense of personal understanding. While presenting an unhurried pace, Assayas’ sneaks in a quasi-esoteric mystery that both helps propel the movie into more pretentious waters and helps elevate this to an even more luxuriously entertaining place.
There is an indulgence to the lingering camera shots that obviously want the audience to love Stewart as much as Assayas’ does. It’s a feature that will either be inviting or off-putting depending on one’s stance to such an indulgence and Stewart herself. However, the themes at play are touching on ideas of lingering presences and concepts of giving in to prolonged moments, as Maureen becomes as thrilled by the texts as much as she instinctively fears them.
The anonymity of the Unknown caller allows Maureen to be even more forthright with her feelings, her disdain for her job, her desire to be the one catered to, not catering. The movie wears a good deal of its message on its sleeve, but it’s not always forthright with its intentions. Like a magic act, Assayas’ is playing a bait and switch with plot devices that serve more as red herrings than clues to a larger mystery of, what’s going on. And as indicated in a significant third act scene, the answer to the mystery isn’t as important as what’s surrounding it. To emphasize this, camera movement is sparse, economizing the space around the actors. Cuts sometimes linger, but even when they don’t, the mostly absent score leaves even more space for the viewer to absorb the minutiae of each scene.
If this seems a bit pretentious, it probably is. But Assayas’ pretention isn’t so much about large signifiers screaming this is important. He gives us his story as matter-of-factly as he can present and allows his characters to plainly say what they think and feel. The lighting design consists of few shadows, allowing everything in frame to be exposed, but not overexposed to a point of saturation. Stewart’s performance feels almost biographical, organic and engaging, which, since she carries the movie, allows for a viewer intimacy that like the nature of the subject matter is a bit haunting.