Personal Shopper | reviews, news & interviews
Film noir? Ghost story? Olivier Assayas and Kristen Stewart flit compellingly between genres
What is Personal Shopper? Is it a haunted-house horror movie, a woman-in-peril thriller? Is it a satire on celebrity and the fetishistic world of fashion or an exercise in existential angst for the generation more familiar with texting than talking? It’s all those things, and more. Director Olivier Assayas reunites with Kristen Stewart from Clouds of Sils Maria and again, she’s playing an assistant to a celebrity/actress. This time she plays Maureen, a personal shopper, picking out couture outfits and Cartier jewellery for her boss’s various glamorous appearances, skittering between the ateliers of Paris and London.
Maureen is a put-upon "chore-whore" who barely sees her boss, Kyra – a sloe-eyed Nora van Wäldstatten. Kyra is playing her own manipulative game with both her lover and wealthy husband. Maureen’s too smart for such work, but it helps pay the rent on her Paris basement and buys her time while she works out whether to join her boyfriend in Oman (cue out-of-synch conversations on Skype) or exorcise the memory of her twin.
Selected doubtless for her fashion instincts and similar physique, Maureen is forbidden to try on the spiked heels and bondage-inspired frocks she picks out for Kyra, but she can’t resist their erotic allure. Neither can she resist trying to contact her twin, haunting their abandoned house in a woodland suburb. Intrigued by the spiritualist paintings of Hilma af Klimt and the séances of Victor Hugo, she sinks deeper into a solitary hunt for answers. When Maureen begins to receive a series of texts from Caller Unknown, she’s unable to withstand temptation and steps into more darkened halls and empty hotel rooms than seems quite wise.
Assayas brings out the best in Stewart, which is essential as she is on screen for nearly every moment. As an actress she’s come a long way from the sulky cipher of the Twilight movies, and is now wholly mesmerising, whether riding her moped through Paris in grungy jeans, or stripped down to her knickers while trying on another impossible couture gown. She is well supported by an excellent international cast, appropriate for a film shot in Paris, London, the Czech Republic and Oman.
One of Personal Shopper’s great pleasures is the way it plays with narrative conventions. Assayas isn’t afraid of leaving questions unanswered and plot twists dangling; to give too much away here would be to spoil one of the film's pleasures – unpicking the connections between characters and their questionable grasp on reality. The subleties of the script make the two clunky scenes of undigested exposition involving a doctor and a new boyfriend stand out starkly, but those duff notes aside, Personal Shopper unfurls to create a seamless and tantalising atmosphere of dread.
Assayas echoes Stanley Kubrick (those hotels) and Michael Haneke (death’s mesmeric pull) but the film-makers whose ghosts most haunt this film are Hitchcock, always a dab hand at torturing his heroines, and Nicholas Roeg at his finest – particularly Bad Timing and Don’t Look Now. Personal Shopper is one of those films that repays repeated viewing and will doubtless divide audiences, especially those looking for straight horror or pure European art movie, but it is definitely worth the price of admission whatever genre it fits.
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