In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it.
I first saw Personal Shopper last autumn, and I have been obsessed with cracking it. What does it mean? Whose ghost was where? Were there ghosts at all? Is there a literal way to take the plot or is this one of those purposefully ambiguous art films which is more concerned with tone than tangibility? I must know, and lucky for me I have the rare opportunity to see it a second time before publishing this review.
As of right now, I suspect it is both plot and tone focused, a notion that has been somewhat cemented by my recent viewing of Olivier Assayas’ previous film, Clouds of Sils Maria (also starring Kristen Stewart, who I will henceforth be referring to as K-Stew, because I like to have fun.)
Much like Clouds, Personal Shopper puts K-Stew in the role of an assistant to a successful woman. In Clouds she’s a line reading partner to a middle-aged, emotionally engaged actress; in Shopper she buys clothing for an elite, distant, (anti?)socialite, whose tastes abide a specific set of rules. When K-Stew isn’t out obtaining the latest fashions for her boss, she’s acting as a medium, trying to make contact with her recently deceased twin brother Lewis, with whom she shares the same psychic talent and congenital heart defect.
For K-Stew (henceforth referred to as Stewz), contact with her brother is essential. You see, prior to his departure they agreed that if their shared malady were to bring about either’s demise, one would attempt to contact the other from beyond, and when Stewz begins receiving playful/threatening/mysterious text messages from an untraceable number, as well as a litany of other spooky occurrences, she wonders if perhaps this is Lewis’ doing. Stewz, frustrated with the disingenuousness of her job and the ambiguities of potentially supernatural communication, is struggling to decode it all.
I know exactly how you feel, Stewz.
End part 1.
Begin part 2.
Welp, I cried a little bit at the end, and if there’s any better indicator that the film really comes together upon second viewing, it’s that.
Stewz (henceforth referred to as Kristen Stewart, because she’s a legitimately excellent actress of whom I wish not to make fun) does something pretty special with her performance, painting a unique portrait of grief as experienced by someone with incontrovertible proof of an afterlife. As a medium who frequently experiences communication from beyond, one would think that the death of a loved one would, to her, only represent a brief time apart, yet Maureen, as played by Stewart (and written by Assayas), uses her gift in much the same way as we non-mediums use our spiritual limitations — to seek our departed loved ones in places they can never definitively be found.
For us, an object becomes a keepsake. For Maureen, an anonymous text message becomes communication from the afterlife.
And this is why Assayas’ arthouse chiller is so effective. Yes, a plot can be mined from the on-screen occurrences (a few plots, really, each depending on the viewer’s interpretation), but the story is one of universally relativity: it is the tale of someone trying to find meaning in newly empty spaces and, if my interpretation is correct, of a spirit playfully trying to remind someone that the world stops for neither the departed nor the bereaved.
Personal Shopper finds a weird wavelength pretty early on, and if you can cling to it through a few purposefully difficult tonal shifts, you will be rewarded immensely. Assayas is toying with his audience a bit here, layering concrete occurrences on top of ambiguities and so on and so forth, likely to create in the audience a sense of the biggest question there is: What does it all mean?
A few insider’s notes (may or may not be spoilery given your taste levels, but won’t make sense to anyone who hasn’t seen the film):
– Kyra will not wear clothes which have been previously worn by others, presumably because she wishes these objects to have no attachment to anyone but herself.
– Maureen and her living, breathing boyfriend desperately try to make contact with one another, but never actually meet during the movie. Their communication is entirely through Skype or through handwritten notes.
– Maureen’s communication with Kyra is the same. All notes and texts. The one time they cross paths in the flesh, Maureen is sent away so Kyra can take a call.
– The way that Assayas shoots a text message is indicative of both his assured visual skill (never has a simple “. . .” been used to such great effect), as well as the audience’s own connection to text-based communication.
– Fashion people are stupid. Why do we assign such value to what is essentially cloth? OH WAIT THATS THE THEME OF THE MOVIE.
Personal Shopper opens in Philly area theaters today!