Personal Shopper (2016)


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It’s hard to love a film that’s deliberately ambiguous but there is something about this odd, French, mixed-genre movie by Olivier Assayas that mesmerises. Maureen (Kristen Stewart) is in a kind of frantic and masochistic limbo in Paris. Her twin brother Lewis has died from a congenital heart condition they both share and she is waiting for him to show her a sign that the afterlife exists. 

Lewis was a medium, Maureen less so, and we get the sense that she has always been influenced by her brother, never able to decide what she herself believes or desires. She has a job she hates as a personal shopper for an absent and domineering celebrity, Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), visiting designer fashion and jewellery houses. Friends of her brother want to buy his (big, spooky, haunted) house and she spends the night to see if Lewis is there, to see if he is happy.

The film starts out as a standard paranormal horror. Maureen’s nights alone in the dark, empty, isolated house are genuinely creepy with a minimum of cheap scares. No sooner are you thinking that this is a standard ‘are ghosts real’ horror than the film shifts gear into an introspective drama about grief and inertia. Maureen is waiting in so many ways – for proof of an afterlife, for her heart to give out, for a job that fulfils her, for something to shake her up, to move on from her grief. Then the film shifts into a modern and well crafted Hitchcockian thriller, as Maureen begins receiving anonymous texts that bully and unsettle her. The scene on the Eurostar is perfect for Stewart’s twitchy, coltish unease as we see her pushed and provoked.

There is something immensely watchable about Stewart. It’s partly her androgynous beauty, which is used to great effect here. There could have been a temptation to transform her from ugly duckling to stunning beauty in the scenes where she tries on Kyra’s clothes but Stewart manages to look as stunning and as awkward in a singlet and jeans as she does in high fashion. She plays this part well and shows the many complex facets of her character – her fear, repression, anger, doubt and resolve. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen her play a character who is at ease with herself and I’m yet to decide whether it’s typecasting or a sign of a limited range.

The film has a strong sense of place, ostensibly Paris although this could be one of many European urban centres  – bleached colours, street lights and a perennial autumnal twilight. The camera fade to black between scenes gives a fragmented feel as if we are only seeing parts of a story, not a linear flow. There are other jarring elements; the two scenes where Maureen has extended dialogue with men are awkwardly scripted, with the men clumsily asking questions designed to allow Maureen to explain her thoughts to us. Neither feels genuine.

The film left me wondering what on earth it was about and it felt a bit messy. There are some unexplained but seemingly meaningful scenes and the final lines point to the film having a deep metaphor. It’s not as clever as a Haneke film, which can be similarly obtuse, though it left me with a comparable sense of unease and frustration. I spent a lot of time thinking about it and speculating and I’m left with a feeling that, ultimately, this film is really only about Maureen and a critical turning point in her life.

Currently in cinemas

Bechdel test – pass

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