Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielsen Lie
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Part horror, psychological thriller, rom-com, art-house and content marketing for Chanel personafied by the never-better Kristen Stewart
On opening night at Cannes, Personal Shopper was unanimously booed during the credits roll. The following night, it got a standing ovation. Ultimately, internationally-acclaimed and equally polarising writer and director, Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria, Summer Hours, Irma Vep) took home Best Director, causing many a scoff and derisive eye-roll throughout the festival.
This genre-hopping, stylistic mish-mash is – depending on who you ask – a rebellious stroke of experimental cinematic genius, or a flaming hot mess. Actually, though – it’s kind of both.
The film focuses on the effortlessly stylish “I-woke-up-like-this” Maureen (Kristen Stewart). Maureen is a young American in Paris making her living as a high-fashion personal shopper for an A-list celebrity, and is also (wait for it)…. a spiritual medium. Grieving the recent death of her twin brother Louis (also a medium), Maureen goes on a journey to fulfil a pact they made as children: whoever died first would send the other a sign from the other realm. In between frequenting high-street boutiques with blank cheques from her clients, she haunts Louis’ derelict-chic Parisian home, determined to make contact with him.
Part horror, psychological thriller, rom-com, art-house and content marketing for Chanel, Personal Shopper is simultaneously everything and nothing. It moves between so many genres that it, against all odds, becomes its own indefinably brilliant, dishevelled category. Here, Assayas’ directorial skills are way ahead of his writing, which fails to keep up with his alluring inability to pick a lane. It’s both ethereal in a hyper-surrealist Salvador Dalí kind of way, but also stark, far too absolute and unforgiving like Brutalist architecture.
The only coup of the writing is his ability to integrate symbolism so subtly. In fact, you actually catch yourself writing a first-year uni essay about the mise-en-scène in your head. Many would have chosen to beat you over the head with themes like grief, loss and modern anxiety, but Assayas and Stewart manage to sew these leitmotifs into Maureen’s character so deeply, that you’re not even sure they mean what you suspect they do. Watching the film, you will constantly overhear people speculating what they think she’s doing and why she’s doing it. And that’s to be expected from a film that allows someone like the wildly un-expressive Kristen Stewart to indulge some of her most severe and ambiguous acting tics. Her trademark persona of being perpetually unimpressed, confused and having to move that pesky hair from her face every 30 seconds is in full swing here – but this time, it actually works well.
Stewart’s Maureen is a woman battling several invisible forces in what are mostly monologue or silent solitary scenes. Assayas’ demands on Stewart as the lead here, are massive, where most of the time she is acting against/with herself and nothing else. But in the end, she is truly magnificent and adventurous, moving like smoke through every scene she occupies (which, by the way, is literally all of them).
What might be pissing people off the most about Personal Shopper is that your investment in the film never really pays off. It’s frustrating, deeply polarising, but more importantly, admirable. Why should Assayas give us everything? When did that become the expectation? What makes you think you deserve all the answers, anyway? In that vein, Stewart and Assayas never actually tell you who Maureen really is. She is a very closely guarded secret throughout, and while you have small clues, you never quite grab hold of it. For some, that’s brilliant, for others – it’s a total kick in the teeth. Either way it’s chilling, gorgeous and engaging. And that should be enough – rewarded, even. It’s the kind of film that makes you want to get coffee after and dissect it piece by piece; debating with your friends about what you think it all meant – and that’s always the mark of a good film, conventional or not.