In the six or so days since Olivier Assayas premiered Personal Shopper at the NYFF, I’ve been mulling it over, trying to decide how I feel about it which, in a way, is its own endorsement. If after a week, one is still meditating on a movie, it must be some sort of success; a connection made between the director’s vision and viewer’s brain. Its open-ended meditation earned Shopper a few boos at Cannes — and Assayas, a shared Best Director award — but in New York City, the credits rolled to thunderous applause and most of the audience stayed for Assayas’ follow-up Q & A, which I must admit was quite charming.
Kristen Stewart has come a long way from her Twilight days, earning France’s highest acting honor last year for her director’s last outing, Clouds of Sils Maria. For her performance opposite Juliette Binoche, Stewart won the César Award for Best Supporting Actress; she’s the first American to do so. Assayas was so taken with Stewart he immediately set about creating another film (“collaboration”) with and for her; indeed, Personal Shopper revolves entirely around her character, Maureen, a medium whose twin brother Lewis has just passed away. What’s interesting about Stewart is that she can come across so very ordinary, a person you might not notice at all, yet onscreen, somehow we cannot — don’t want to take our eyes off her. There’s a magic in that. If there is a method to her acting, you won’t see it; Stewart is as natural as your sister, your best friend.
At its heart, the movie is a meditation on grief (apparently, this year’s NYFF theme), but it plays like a ghost story/thriller, with Maureen desperate to give her missing other half a chance to make contact with her. Before he died, brother and sister each promised that whichever of them was the first to go would try to let the still-living sibling know they were on the other side. Living in Paris, Maureen spends most of her time alone and even when she’s with someone else (usually only one person at a time), she’s got that faraway look that belies her mental presence. The only real connection she seems to have is with Lewis’ wife, Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz), who, conversely, wants to move on from her husband’s death as quickly as possible. Before Lara sells her marital home, Maureen spends a couple nights in the cavernous mansion where her brother resided. Completely unfazed by the lack of light and strange noises, she waits for Lewis to make himself known. This spooky, drawn-out opening sequence with spectacular sound editing and a wonderfully creepy, creaky house sets the tone for the rest of the story; the audience is left on edge, uncertain.
To earn a living, Maureen spends much of her time flitting between stores, designers, and purveyors, choosing outfits for her exceedingly busy (and according to Maureen, bitchy), high-maintenance and profile, rarely seen boss, Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten). Rushing to and fro with piles of glamorous dresses, expensive shoes, and accessories, we might be tempted to live vicariously through Maureen, but she takes no pleasure in the job. She isn’t just going through the motions because of her grief: she’s bored, unsatisfied with her entire life … and it shows. Maureen zooms through the streets of Paris on her motorbike, surrounded by unnoticed beauty; in her job, enveloped in an employer’s luxury, but inside herself, she is alone and empty. Hollowed out by the inability to deal with her brother’s death and an uninspired life, as we meander alongside Maureen, things take an unexpected turn.
In Shopper‘s finest moments, it’s a genuinely moody thriller. When Maureen begins receiving mysterious texts from an unknown person — entity? — it’s as jolting to viewers as it is to her. Assayas plays with the immediacy and anonymity of the texting, putting those three tentative dots … that signal the other person is typing to great dramatic use, and it’s impossible not to put oneself in Maureen’s alarmed and terrified shoes. Again, we understand her actions when the texts turn quite personal, spurring an oddly intimate sequence that starts out fine, then lingers, perhaps too longing a voyeuristic glance at Kristen Stewart, the actress.
After a disturbing incident, there’s no accounting for some of Maureen’s actions. Then again, who can say what any of us would do in our grief? Along on this untethered ride through loss and loneliness, we’re in the same constant state of unknowing as she. When Maureen wonders whether it’s Lewis she’s feeling, just as the director promised, the final frames fade leaving questions unanswered. The debate over what happened may not last, but Stewart’s fine performance and Assayas’ quiet film will leave viewers haunted.
Personal Shopper is written and directed by Olivier Assayas and stars Kristen Stewart, Nora von Waldstätten, Sigrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielsen Lie, Lars Eidinger, and Ty Olwin. It opens in wide release March 10, 2017.