Though on its surface Personal Shopper is a ghost story/murder mystery, the film’s real concern is for identity and desire. It’s the kind of movie only French writer-director Olivier Assayas could give us. Though the film’s genre tropes are so strong that they threaten to overshadow its more delicate and profound themes, Assayas still strings them together with the delicate touch he is known for. It also would probably never have been as strong without the film’s perfectly cast lead, an exceptional Kristen Stewart whose low-key acting style offers just enough opaqueness to her character to carry the film to an intriguingly transcendent ending that should inspire a good amount of discussion.
The film opens at dusk, outside an old manor in the French countryside that Maureen Cartwright, who considers herself a spiritual medium, wishes to investigate for a sign of her twin brother Lewis who died of the same heart condition she carries. As this is a film about a woman coming to terms with who she is and who she wants to be, she enters the manor where Lewis once lived, in great control, even if she isn’t in control of her gifts or has truly come to terms with her identity. Lewis’ former girlfriend, who took Maureen to the gate of the home refuses to go in. “Too many memories,” she says. Walking across creaky floorboards, Maureen opens doors throughout, making her way to the balcony, as she lets light in. It foreshadows an internal journey that she is about to embark on, a sort of metaphysical creation of a portal to an inner darkness that shall be revealed in her self-discovery throughout the movie.
As the film moves forward, a doctor advises Maureen on her condition, “You just have to avoid intense physical efforts and extreme emotions.” It’s one of those moments that Assayas lays it on a bit heavier than I would have liked to have seen, unlike his more recent and stronger movies (Film Review: Something in the Air presents vibrant picture of youth in tumult; Clouds of Sils Maria examines the layers of celebrity identity with powerful performances — a film review). In a way, it sort of excuses Stewart’s style, who is often criticized for a distant quality. But she doesn’t make for a typical damsel in distress, and this isn’t that kind of role, which is still better written than what most filmmakers could ever mustered. This is also why Assayas could very well be my favorite of all living French directors.
Maureen is an independent woman, who works as an assistant to a supermodel named Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), who she hardly ever sees (a ghostly presence in another way) but she calls “a monster.” Her boyfriend Gary (Ty Olwin), who is in another part of the world, reaches out via Skype advising her to quit her job and come to him. Maureen, however, feels she has to stick it through because deep inside, she wants to be Kyra. In one scene she does something forbidden: she puts on Kyra’s clothes, underwear and all. In the sequined evening gown, Maureen’s posture and walk change. It’s moments like these that reveal Stewart’s strength as an actress. And when the plot twists to an extended exchange with a mysterious person via text message egging on her desires — which demands a silent performance from Stewart — her trembling fingers and her impressive physical pauses carry a terrific weight.
Personal Shopper builds to a finale that some might unjustly compare to The Sixth Sense. If you feel that this movie has that sort of literal twist ending, you are selling the film quite short. In the end, the genre trappings are a portal to something more grounded and real: a sense of identity and how expectations weigh one down on a personal level. Stewart’s performative style is key, inviting the viewer to extract meaning on a more ineffable level. She genuinely raises the film to level that speaks to her strength of one the strongest actresses, blending in with Assayas point that sometimes we are too busy trying to find ourselves when we simply are who we are.
* * *
Programming Note: On Saturday evening, April 1, join Independent Ethos’ co-founder/creative director and Vice Chair of the Florida Film Critics Circle Hans Morgenstern for a special screening of Personal Shopper at the Miami Beach Cinematheque where he will host an exclusive group for a meeting with the Miami Beach Cinematheque’s director, Dana Keith. We will meet inside the lobby of the Historic Miami Beach City Hall (the the FORMER city hall building on Washington Ave.), in front of the cinema at 4:30 p.m. for check-in. Then, Dana will discuss his role as founder and programmer at MBC. We will also get a tour of the theater, where Dana has a sample of the most extensive archive of movie memorabilia you will see, which he is currently digitizing. As usual, we will also talk about projection before Hans introduces the film to the group. Hans will also be available to discuss the movie afterward. This is part of our program “Independent Ethos Insider’s Tour of the Movies” co-sponsored by The Knight Foundation, Continental Film & Digital Labs and Magna-Tech. Purchase tickets via this link:
Look for the “Indie Ethos Tour” event priced at $16.00. You also get a free drink and popcorn. Tickets are already selling and seating is very limited so do buy them ASAP.
Personal Shopper runs 105 minutes, is in French and English with English subtitles and is rated R. It opens Friday, March 24th in our South Florida area at the following theaters:
- Living Room Cinema 4 in Boca Raton
- Gateway 4 in Fort Lauderdale
- Aventura Mall 24 Theaters in Aventura
- Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables
- Sunset Place 24 Theatres in South Miami
Then it opens Friday, March 31, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque.