A study of the people who move forward, and the ones who don’t, following tragedy.
Personal Shopper is not the first of Olivier Assayas’ collaborations with Kristen Stewart to involve a train nor the first to involve messages being exchanged on said train. Clouds of Sils Maria opens on one, finding Stewart’s Valentine mid-conversation on the phone, an assistant to Juliette Binoche’s Maria Enders. Maria derides the idea that she will be starring in another X-Men movie, she’s tired of acting in front on green screens.
Clouds of Sils Maria is about how our perspective on art changes as we grow older, how it is possible to see in it a new light with more life experience. Assayas has said before that he sees cinema as ghosts – an intriguing thought. You write a movie, go through the stages of production, produce a cut of the film with which you are satisfied with enough to set it aside for x amount of time, until the press tour comes and you need to get back out there to lavish the movie with praise, but having had time apart from it. Perhaps even seeing it differently.
Personal Shopper is a literal ghost story. Maybe. It might be fair to say that it’s one-third a ghost story, one-third a Hitchcockian thriller and one-third a character study. It might be more than just these three movies. It might not work entirely in every frame, but it’s wholly fascinating and unsettling in equal measure. It invites you to be uncomfortable. I shift around a lot when seated, but here, I realised that I wasn’t shifting to get comfortable. Instead, I was moving to pull myself closer to the screen, perhaps to avoid reaching a point where I felt safe and secure about what was going to happen.
Kristen Stewart plays Maureen, a personal shopper. Someone who’s stuck in the material world when she’s feeling disconnected from the real world. You see, her twin brother, Lewis, died three months ago, from a condition that she shares. Opening on her arrival to the house that he once owned, it feels appropriate to suggest the nouveau Gothic nature of this. The cast-iron gate secluding the chalet as the carriage of the time (in this case, a Volvo) draws nearer. She’s come here to see if she can feel her brother’s presence, in her own words, she’s waiting.
Others are waiting as well, a couple of Lewis’ friends are interested in the house and are waiting on Maureen to determine whether the house is inhabited by a presence which may or not be Lewis’. On the other hand, Sigrid Bouaziz’s Lara, his ex, has come to realise that it’s appropriate to mourn, but that we do so, in order to carry on. As such, she’s found someone new, but it’s impossible for her to do so completely, evident in how she has an interest in carpentry, Lewis’ profession.
Maureen hasn’t moved on yet. The movie finds her in a unique position of grief. In fact, the camera always wants to find her. In Stewart, Assayas found his muse. The camera floats through the scenes, gradually panning around, then it’ll rush to hold on Maureen and rightly so, because this is Stewart’s finest performance. Much like Jackie, the film hinges on this central performance and it’s so captivating throughout.
If you’re surprised by the notion that Kristen Stewart can act, then it would pertinent to remember that she delivered a striking child performance for David Fincher in Panic Room. Being honest, the time for being surprised that she could act should’ve passed back in 2009 following Adventureland.
Since then, she’s moved past the Twilight movies (although I would argue her androgynous blank slate approach is a smart approach for a YA franchise when teens are looking for protagonists like them) to create a space in which she can operate without anyone trying to encroach on it. A naturalistic approach that feels effortless, you’ll never catch her acting and that’s kinda the point. Other, more showy actresses, could take the role of Maureen and decide that certain beats deserve bigger, more clearly emotional reactions that you can identify as acting. Instead, Stewart encapsulates the character. As much as it’s possible to say this is a movie of Olivier Assayas, it’s perhaps easier to call this Kristen Stewart’s movie. She’s created this brand where she’s cool, but doesn’t care –– where she can drop the f-bomb on live TV and come back from it in three seconds flat –– and this movie is modeled after that in a way. It’s not a standard ghost story and it doesn’t give a damn if you’re not on-board with that.
It’s the tics that become noticeable with how laser focused the film is on her at all times. During the most atypical sequence, set on the Eurostar, she texts with an unknown number. Her thumbs twitch, as if she knows how she wants to respond, but is hesitant to do so. Throughout the movie, it’s the way that she doesn’t always know what to do with her hands, the way that she goes to board the Eurostar and seems to have forgotten that she’s holding the ticket in her mouth, trying to balance the rest of her luggage, the way that she stammers in a way that clearly isn’t like an actor for David Mamet would. The line readings aren’t ones which have the exact number of repeated syllables written on the page, they’re ones from someone in the moment, playing off the spectral energy.
To get to the titular focus of the film, she zips around Paris (and London), picking up clothes for Kyra, her boss. She’s not a fan of this job by any stretch of the imagination, but she sticks with it, even when presented with other prospects. An offer she receives is more glamourous, both in what she’d have to do and where she’d be, not to mention easier. It’s a movie about grief, but also about the inability to do so. Others do their best to move on, Maureen keeps going back to Lewis’ house. She’s not able to move on, but she keeps moving around, running countless errands for Kyra in the hope that filling her time will keep her mind busy as well.
I think my viewing of this movie has been enhanced by the conditions in which I saw it. You see, it wasn’t playing anywhere near me, I had to travel ninety minutes to do so, which meant I had to get the train. Into St. Pancras. The station from which the Eurostar departs for Paris. I didn’t so much walk back through the station, instead I let the balls of my feet carry me to the platform without giving me a moment to properly acknowledge I’d walked through a section depicted on screen not two hours ago. It made me hesitant to get on the train to come home, in the same way a standard horror movie may make you reluctant to turn off the light and go up to bed. I decided to turn off my phone, so I needn’t run the risk of getting a notification.
I found a lot of myself in Maureen. I said that I shift around a lot and that extends to generally, not just in a seat. I don’t know what to do with my hands, I palm at the sides of my hair to push it over my ear, and noticed I was doing it more as I walked back. There were things I noticed, but Personal Shopper made me realise something as well.
I’ve lost relatives, but unlike many, this didn’t really happen until the back half of my teens. Which meant it coincided with depression and familial breakdowns, the pressures of achieving grades to get into uni and the need to display outwards that none of this stuff was having any real impact on me.
There was a time shortly after my Granddad died that I was in History. We were split into groups, it was something about the Berlin Wall. I finished whatever I had to do pretty quickly and I just did the work tasked to everyone else in my group. This extended outwards, I kept, and keep filling time, I’m at uni as I do two podcasts a week, one of which I edit, as I hold down a job as a comics critic as I read to keep up in order to do so as I consume pop culture at a rate which can’t seemed to be matched by the people around me as I write this post as I plan to have a movie, which could easily be one hundred and fifty pages, written the end of the month as I don’t, and haven’t, grieved for any of the losses of the past four years, minimum.
Personal Shopper does it’s best to offer a distinction between the material world, the physical and the spiritual. I’ve avoided discussing the ending, but it doesn’t provide definitive answers to some of the questions that the movie, and the audience, will posit, but I think it can provide answers to questions we ponder regardless. It is so strikingly different from everything I’ve ever seen, that over the course of the screening, it dawned on me that I was watching my new favourite movie, art is at it’s best at it’s most ambitious, even if imperfect. Were a movie to present these ideas in a more conventional fashion, it would likely not have the same effect on me. The unconventional nature of this magnificent film eschews the turns of phrase that conventional movies, and people in general, rely on, in order to talk about grief and mourning – there’s no stressing of “take your time”. Due to this, I listened instead of brushing it aside and finally heard, in a way that didn’t feel part of the motions in the wake of tragedy, that it was okay for me to grieve.