' ' Cinema Romantico: Personal Shopper

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Personal Shopper

Kristen Stewart has long specialized in charismatically rendering distraction. In “Certain Women” she used shoveling a diner plate full of food into her mouth to signal how she’d rather be anywhere than where she was, and all the way back to “Adventureland” she moved through a rundown amusement park, and her whole life really, with the attitude of someone waiting to be beamed up to wherever else she was supposed to be. And in “Personal Shopper”, writer/director Olivier Assayas harnesses that distraction for its greatest good yet, building around Stewart something like a ghost story that is at once literal and metaphorical. It is, however, neither Ghost Chasers nor intelligentsia slush, but something weirdly, wonderfully moving, particularly in how Stewart moves not so much through a fallen world as through a normal world that, through her eyes, may as well be fallen anyway. Indeed, when someone asks Stewart’s Maureen what she is doing in Paris, Maureen replies: “Waiting.” That’s what “Personal Shopper” feels like – like someone waiting for something to start.

In a genuine sense, Maureen is. Her brother Louis died not long before the movie opens, from a heart defect, the same one plaguing Maureen, meaning it’s possible she could go anytime too. And because Louis was a medium, brother and sister made a pact that if he died he would send a signal from beyond the grave to let her know there was, in fact, something in the great beyond. Her paranormality, however, is less professional than personal, and to make ends meet she works as a personal shopper for some vaguely defined celebrity named Katya (Nora Waldstätten) who sends lowly Maureen on errands all over Paris. And even if the camera can occasionally veer into voyeuristic territory during these missions of commerce, Maureen is nevertheless almost always is able to elude its grasp, falling in out and of shots, never allowing us to get a complete fix on her as she never seems to get anywhere except the next haven of designer garb, running in place. This idea is underscored in chats with her boyfriend (Ty Olwin), all of which are conducted by Skype, reinforcing the impersonal distance. We see her sketching in notebooks, but if that’s her passion, she does little with it.

All this might lead you to assume that the haunting in a “Personal Shopper” is of the allgeogrical kind, Maureen as a ghost in her own life, sort of “A Ghost Story” without the white bedsheet. But while that’s true, Assayas is also not being coy; we hear noises in the night, we see fleeting spectral images, something is there. The movie doesn’t just believe in ghosts; it shows us ghosts. Yet, it’s not the spookiness that spooks Maureen. If anything, she wants more of it, which she actually says, demanding from Louis, if it is indeed him, further signs of his presence. If these moments freak us out, they don’t seem to faze her, which have a profound means of settling us down and drawing us in.

Assays improbably brings all these threads together in a mid-movie text exchange that stretches across several scenes in which Maureen begins receiving messages from an unknown number, one teasing her, threatening her, testing her. With little more than a phone, the scroll sound and KStew, Assayas manages to render an extended sequence that, wrapped around Maureen’s voyage from Paris to the countryside, becomes as thrilling as Jason Bourne guiding the journalist through Waterloo Station in “The Bourne Ultimatum”, a chase scene, of sorts, down the information superhighway, equally tantalizing and terrifying. Who exactly is on the other end you never quite know even if you have an idea, but the answer never matches the question – never matches the moment. And that’s fine. This sequence, taken in tandem with others, where she watches iPhone videos, all underscore her sense of isolation and search for connection through the digital realm.

The voice on the other end tempts her to try on Katya’s clothes, which she does, as she occasionally does elsewhere, and if there are moments in the movie where Stewart lets Maureen’s distraction fall away, it’s here. In these sequences, she comes alive in a palpable way, slipping into someone else’s skin as a means to commune with the world in a way she can’t otherwise seem to achieve. Whether she ultimately finds the means to slip this fog, I’ll leave for you to discover, though the film’s unique parts might well tip its enigmatic concluding hand. And if this ending will elicit questions, it nevertheless feels emotionally, if not spiritually (secularly?), complete. If Assayas stresses Maureen’s loneliness throughout, this is still as lonely as she ever looks, sending a question out into the cosmos that only bounces right back.

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