Catherine Bray is caught off guard by Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper, premiering in Competition at Cannes 2016.
Sometimes, you just don’t do your homework. There are films at Cannes I’ve walked into knowing a great deal about, and then there’s Personal Shopper. It’s the second collaboration between Kristen Stewart and Olivier Assayas after Clouds Of Sils Maria, where she played PA to a famous actress, and because the bare bones premise of Personal Shopper sounds so similar – this time she plays a personal shopper for a famous actress – I naively assumed it would be a similar sort of film. A kind of K-Stew celebrity gopher diptych, if you like.
It’s nice to be surprised. Personal Shopper is an eerie film that deals unashamedly in both the supernatural and the banal and ratchets the creepiness up to full-on horror at a couple of points. But despite its on/off genre trappings, it’s a mood piece: you’ll either be absorbed entirely into its world of incipient, tamped down hysteria, or you’ll find it a bit silly. I guess it’s kind of Repulsion meets Paranormal Activity?
It’s also a film very much about absence. Kristen Stewart’s Paris-based personal shopper Maureen is in dialogue with three different absent figures in the film (four if you count her long-distance boyfriend, but since she Skypes with him, she at least sees his face once in a while).
Firstly, she barely sees her all-powerful celebrity boss Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), who is acknowledged by all who work with her as a monster. They communicate almost entirely through scrawled notes and intuition. It’s authority from above, rarely glimpsed, god-like, and a total pain in the ass. She worries that her boss will catch her or see her doing things she isn’t supposed to do.
Secondly, Maureen is tentatively trying to make contact with her dead twin brother Lewis. The siblings shared an interest in spiritualism even before he passed away, and now that he’s dead, she has all the more reason to believe. It was interesting to experience the titters that the supernatural elements of the story evinced from the crowd in the Debussy – ghosts in serious-minded fiction are probably out of fashion now, unless presented in a film more overtly magical realistic in tone.
The third dialogue Maureen is engaged in is with a mysterious texter who refuses to reveal his or her identity. The texts are not explicitly sexual in nature, but there is a sexual undertone, as the anonymous questions tease and command and suggest, operating at a level of intimacy that would have been impossible with a stranger prior to the advent of mobile technology.
These three dialogues come together in a key scene in a hotel which likely marks the point at which you are either in or out on this film. I was very much in – I don’t believe the hairs on the back of my neck literally stood up; it was far too warm in the theatre for that – but if an unexpected hand had rested on my shoulder at that moment, I would have screamed much louder than the mean-spirited souls who think it right to boo at the end of films that they personally didn’t enjoy.
It’s not a perfect film – some character decisions defy logic – but it is strikingly effective on the level that I suspect matters most to Olivier Assayas: taking us on an emotional journey. It is also an unexpected journey – I defy anyone to have guessed where the narrative was going at any given moment (would it be unfair to suggest the film itself doesn’t always care?), but given the glut of rigidly overworked three-act films that find their way into cinemas, it’s sometimes rather refreshing to watch something that breaks most of the rules in the “How To Write Your First Screenplay” books.
Personal Shopper also adheres to a significant visual pleasure principle, which is the least sleazy way I can find of saying it is, from time to time, sexy as hell. Where The Handmaiden, which premiered earlier at Cannes, also in Competition, often gave us altogether too much of a good thing, Personal Shopper parcels out the delight it takes in revealing couture and sheer underwear and breathtakingly high shoes in very small doses, weaving them into the fabric of the film, rather than coming off like a gratuitous add-on for the dirty mac brigade.
None of this would work without Kristen Stewart’s superbly layered performance, by turns withholding and generous, but never showboating or appearing to “act”. I simply believed that she was the character, and I can’t think of higher praise for an actor.