Although at times a slightly confused ghost story, Personal Shopper trades on the talent of Kristen Stewart and her connection with director Olivier Assayas. By Christos Tsiolkas.
Kristen Stewart and Olivier Assayas’s ‘Personal Shopper’
It’s best to think of Personal Shopper as a collaboration between the director Olivier Assayas and his lead actor, Kristen Stewart. The film belongs equally to both. This is not to disparage Assayas’s talents as a filmmaker: the film clearly evinces many of the preoccupations that have marked his work from the outset, most particularly the question of how ghosts – whether they be spectres of film itself or, as in the case of Personal Shopper, actual supernatural manifestations – undermine the rationality of our contemporary digital landscapes. But it is as if with Stewart he has found the perfect actor to embody such complicated and sometimes deliberately obtuse speculations. If at times Assayas can be overly cerebral, as if he distrusts the pull of narrative, Stewart’s astonishing naturalness on screen acts as much-needed counterweight.
Personal Shopper is part ghost story, part slasher film, part essay on the interconnectedness of spirituality and art, and part musing on the cult of celebrity. Assayas has so many ideas he is playing with in this film that he often seems in danger of losing control of his material. Stewart remains absolutely committed to his intentions and there isn’t a moment where she distances herself from her character, Maureen. Also, the camera loves her, and every movement and every gesture resonates for the audience. It’s this physicality that grounds the film. We may not always be sure of what is going on in Personal Shopper, and we may sometimes suspect that Assayas as writer and director shares some of our confusion, but we never stop for one moment trusting Stewart’s performance.
Maureen is a young American woman working in Paris as a personal shopper to Kyra, played by Nora von Waldstätten, a rich and pampered celebrity. Though clearly exploited by Kyra, Maureen is determined to stay on in the city. Her brother, her fraternal twin, has recently passed away from a congenital heart condition they share. He believed himself to be a spiritual medium and they had made a vow to each other that the first one to die would try to make contact from the “other side”. Maureen attempts to channel his spirit in the house in which he lived but in doing so she has an encounter with a seemingly malevolent spirit that seems to have started making contact with her through her mobile phone. The phone, this seemingly most quotidian of contemporary objects, becomes both the medium that exposes Maureen to danger and the conduit through which she attempts to come to terms with her grief.
Assayas is most confident as a director in the film’s most disquieting and suspenseful sequences. The film’s first scene takes place in the proverbial haunted house and the eeriness is unforced and genuinely creepy. An outstanding sequence involves Maureen taking the cross-Channel return train from Paris to London to shop for Kyra. During the journey she is being assailed by a series of phone texts that might be supernatural in origin or might instead be the malevolent taunts of a much more earthbound stalker. It’s here where Assayas’s skill and intelligence as a director is clear. Whereas many films have utilised digital effects to simulate the ubiquity of text messages in our lives, Assayas focuses on the reactions of Stewart to the texts to build paranoia and fear. These scenes are propulsive, and although debts to filmmakers such as Hitchcock and Melville are evident, the power here emerges again from the collaboration between director and actor, and also from the excellent work of editor Marion Monnier. In these moments the film is spellbinding.
But the introduction of the thriller element also brings plot contrivances that undermine our engagement with the film. It’s as if Assayas can’t trust the supernatural underpinnings of his ghost story: that he wants to keep an ironic distance from the conventions of the genre. Certainly, ambiguity and doubt are integral to the experience of grief, but the disconnections in the script seem ill-thought-out and therefore unsatisfying. We are denied the moment where the thriller and the ghost story meet, and as such our trust in the story dissipates. An argument can be mounted that Assayas is being deliberately opaque, wanting to remain faithful to an irrational, dreamlike logic. But I’m not persuaded. The problem is both in the script, in that the conventions of the ghost story and the thriller are never reconciled, and also in that Assayas’s talents are not for the hallucinatory and the fantastic. What persuades about the ghost story is that it is rooted in a mise en scène of the everyday and so we understand the spine-chilling disconcertedness of when the unnatural intrudes into our ordinary lives. Directors such as David Lynch and more recently Peter Strickland in Berberian Sound System, and Ben Wheatley in A Field in England, sustain our interest in the often irrational worlds they have created because we trust the language of their filmmaking in conveying the abrupt shifts and terrors of our dreams. As we see not only in his best films but also in his writing on film, Assayas’s talent is for clear-sighted realism.
Assayas came a cropper in an earlier film, Demonlover, where he seemed perversely committed to playing against his strengths. Wanting to make a nightmare vision of the alienation accelerated by new media technology, nothing in that film cohered and each scene seemed unrelated to the one that had gone before and the one proceeding. The attempt to craft a nightmare was clearly not the result of a sustained vision but a desperate attempt to salvage it in the editing room.
Personal Shopper is a much more successful film and its essaying of contemporary alienation is subtle and provoking. Grief anchors the film and the ballast is there in Stewart’s performance. For the most rational and secular individual, coping with grief requires coming to terms with ghosts, even if we believe them to be the stuff of memory and the unconscious rather than corporeal shades from an afterlife. Maureen’s grief has made her withdrawn, fearful of connecting with others. Her work as a personal shopper makes absolute sense because her loss has made her a bystander to life. The danger in the conception of her character is that her passivity and introversion could be a black hole on screen, that it could be deathly dull. But Stewart is vivid in every moment, whether she is challenging her ghosts and her demons, or when she’s simply staring at her phone or putting on a bra. You can’t take your eyes off her.
Assayas worked with Stewart previously in Clouds of Sils Maria. It was in that film, playing opposite Juliette Binoche, that I was bowled over by her aplomb and talent as a performer. The joy of that film was in seeing the more experienced Binoche being reinvigorated as an actor, clearly enjoying the challenge of working with a dynamic new talent. I thought Stewart was also remarkable in Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways, as she is in Certain Women, directed by Kelly Reichardt. But both those films feature an ensemble cast; in Personal Shopper, Stewart carries the film on her own. She is front and centre for the whole of its running time. There are very fine performances by Sigrid Bouaziz, Lars Eidinger and Anders Danielsen Lie, all in tiny supporting roles, but all etched vividly. Undoubtedly that indicates something of Assayas’s talent as a director and his genuine skill with actors. As in his Summer Hours and the long version of Carlos, his generosity extends to the smallest of speaking parts. But this film belongs to Stewart. She takes a ghost story, a thriller, an intellectual exercise on art and communication, and through her craft and her dedication, she centres the film on the painful and disorienting experience of grief. I’m not surprised Assayas wanted to work with her again. I doubt there is a director anywhere in the world who wouldn’t want to work with Kristen Stewart. •
Certain Women is on limited release, from April 21, at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne as part of a retrospective on Kelly Reichardt. Based on short stories by the American writer Maile Meloy, the film is a slow burn, a study of different women battling loneliness, and its cumulative force is undeniable. It is deeply moving. Like all Reichardt’s work, it is a quiet film but the simplicity isn’t prosaic, there are exquisite moments of grace and illumination. Alongside Stewart the cast features Laura Dern, Michelle Williams and Lily Gladstone, all of whom are terrific. The film will also screen at Sydney’s Golden Age Cinema on selected dates from April 27 to May 14. I hope the film gets a national release as I consider it to be the best English language film of the past year.
MUSIC Fairbridge Festival
Pinjarra, Western Australia, April 21-24
POP CULTURE Supanova
Gold Coast Convention & Exhibition Centre, April 21-23
VISUAL ART David Stephenson: Human landscapes
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until July 23
MUSIC The Gum Ball Music Festival
Belford, NSW, April 21-23
VISUAL ART International Mural Festival
Sheffield, Tasmania, April 16-22
OPERA Opera in the Pinnacles
The Pinnacles, Western Australia, April 22
CULTURE Barossa Vintage Festival
Venues throughout the Barossa Valley, April 19-23
VISUAL ART Lawrence Weiner: Out of Sight
NGV International, Melbourne, until April 17
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 15, 2017 as "Onward Kristen soldiers".
A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.
Letters & Editorial