“You could call it that; you could call it a million things.”
Personal Shopper will likely not be of much interest to most moviegoers, which if I’m being honest, is a disheartening product of our increasingly dumbed-down pop culture. It won’t be the hot topic shop around the corner covered with loud window-dressings, pulling in passersby drawn to spectacle. Nor will it be one of those big box stores carrying the easy-breezy-beautiful “Cover Girl” makeup lines, sucking in those who want to pit stop at a safe space of normalcy. And you know what? That’s absolutely fine. There’s nothing inherently wrong with gravitating towards safety and comfort. But if you’re the adventurous type – the 1 out of 10 who’d rather buy local or try a family owned lunch spot over the franchised food court fare – Personal Shopper will be an indelible experience in and of itself. That the film integrates such deep introspection into its flavoring serves as the icing on this metaphorical cake.
I understand that connecting to Personal Shopper is a difficult, demanding task (although the title might suggest more intimate connectivity than actually present throughout.) This film – the latest from Oliver Assayas – prefers to speak very little while allowing for fleeting and often faceless interactions between the handful of performers and allowing its omnipresent lead character to act against the seismic shifts in this landscape’s ethereal atmosphere. In most conventional blockbusters, a lot happens but almost nothing ever matters. In Personal Shopper – an anecdotal ghost story dressed in a soaked blood-red and shrouded by a meticulous black lace – almost nothing happens but nearly everything matters. That’s a big, confusing, counter-intuitive perspective that ill-prepared audiences won’t be able to properly adjust for. And like I said before, that’s okay. Especially for American audiences, as Assayas requires a discerning viewer with a penchant for asking big questions instead of somebody ready to be slapped across the face with small ones.
Maureen (Kristen Stewart) has a passion and a job: the first is her time as a self-described spiritual medium and the second is as an errand runner for the movie star Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), picking out clothes and jewelry for her fair lady. It’s tedious work for Maureen, a curiously distanced woman who’s prone to playing the ghost of her own unfulfilled life, always searching for meaning in unknowable places. One such location comes in the realm of the afterlife. Maureen surveys the gargantuan home of her late twin Lewis (a fellow medium with whom she shared a rare heart condition, and who promised he’d send a sign should he die), calling out in the darkness for a glimpse of his light. The scene is the offspring of Hitchcock married to the mature and nomadic nature of a Kubrickian mind-trip. Something happens, or maybe it doesn’t. Could be Lewis and could be the imagination. Then Maureen starts receiving enticing, potentially dangerous text messages from an unknown number. There’s a chance that she’s interacting with a spirit, quite possibly a darker one than assumed. Personal Shopper evolves from an empty vessel ghost story to a paranoid sexual thriller and perfectly culminates in an existential meditation. Many stories share these great ambitions but few show the skill to actually pull them off.
Olivier Assayas isn’t the kind of filmmaker whose work jumps off the screen, where you sit there and think, “How the hell did he do this?” His approach seems to be more observational, and at the same time, purposefully puzzling. He creates a world on as intimate a macro level as possible, fills it with talent, then lets microcosms develop from further details. Personal Shopper doesn’t offer up conclusions like sacrificial lambs wrapped with a neat bow, nor does the picture bend beneath the influence of expectation. Assayas and his leading lady Stewart, in an unnerving, demanding, revelatory role – watch her thumb twitch over the iPhone screen, the unrehearsed movement of her eyes, the increasingly numbed insanity expressed through her dialogue – develop the kind of film that simply shouldn’t work. Personal Shopper can be dramatic, sexy, scary, and at times even befuddling. But it does so quite effortlessly, which is one of the clearest indicators that we are in fact watching greatness. The meaning of that unforgettable final line echoes like an endless call and answer ellipsis with such indefatigable power and uncertainty that we’re left spiritually shell-shocked. I can still feel the tremors.
“Lewis…are you here? Or is it just me?”
Rating: 4.5 out 5