Review by Eric Hillis
Directed by: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielsen Lie
On the evidence of his last three films, Olivier Assayas looks down his nose at genre movies and those who make them. In Something in the Air, his young protagonist ends up working in a British film studio clearly modelled on Amicus. As he carries rubber monster heads around the set he sighs in a manner that suggests he's above all this. He wants to create 'art' man! In Clouds of Sils Maria, Chloe Moretz plays an actress known for her roles in superhero movies. Assayas shows his disdain for this particular genre with inserts from Moretz's fictional films that are so ridiculous they suggest he's probably never actually watched a superhero movie (but they're not 'art'!). In his latest, Personal Shopper, Kristen Stewart's heroine claims a dislike of horror movies because they feature "women running away and hiding from killers," as reductive a view of the most cinematic of all genres you could possibly hear. Assayas thinks he's above the movies most of us love (it's possible to enjoy both arthouse cinema and genre fare Olivier - just ask Godard and Truffaut!), which makes it difficult for me to admit that he has actually made a pretty effective horror movie of his own.
Stewart is Maureen, an American in Paris employed by a German supermodel (Nora von Waldstatten) to scour the boutiques of Europe for suitable threads for her fashion shoots. She hates her job, but she sticks around Paris for a specific reason. Gifted with psychic abilities, Maureen is convinced if she stays in France long enough she will receive a communication from the beyond from her twin brother, who passed away in a house just outside the French capital. Maureen spends her nights in the house looking for a sign, but rather than attracting her sibling, she draws the attention of another ghost.
Much like Paul Verhoeven's Elle, Personal Shopper is an odd mix of female led character drama and genre thriller. You could remove the rape plotline from Elle and it would still prove a compelling drama, and the same might be said for the supernatural element of Personal Shopper. In fact, Assayas' film would probably play better to his fans if he did excise its paranormal plot. But for those of us willing to engage with and appreciate cinematic oddities, it wouldn't be half as interesting.
Taken at face value, Personal Shopper is frankly ridiculous, but Assayas commits to its nonsense in a manner that makes it impossible not to get on board. Stewart's Maureen is so convincing in her beliefs that it's easy for us to accept them, and when she begins receiving creepy/flirty text messages from an unknown source, we barely bat an eyelid at the notion they may be coming from a ghost. When we get a look at Assayas's ghosts, they look as silly as the rubber monsters of an Amicus dinosaur movie, but we accept them, because that's how cinema works, which the filmmaker must surely begrudgingly now admit?
If you still have doubts over Stewart's abilities as an actress at this point, you clearly don't understand what it is an actor does. For a large chunk of Assayas' film she's asked to do little more than react to a series of text messages while riding the Eurostar. A lesser performer would lose us early on, but the cogency of Stewart's performance makes this the standout sequence of the film. Elsewhere she must perform solo, speaking to unseen ghosts, but never looks ridiculous or self-conscious in doing so.
Much of the snobbery towards Stewart stems from her involvement in the Twilight franchise, as if she's the only great actor to ever appear in a dud series (see Dakota Johnson's current predicament). But what's great about Stewart is how she's used her power to introduce the millions of young women who fell for her as tweens to a world of cinema beyond Hollywood. Tap her name into twitter and you'll see teenage girls passionately discussing their anticipation for new films by Assayas, Woody Allen and Kelly Reichardt. "She's the same in every movie!" is the silly defence of her detractors, as if that's any benchmark of acting (it's an accusation that could be levelled at anyone from John Wayne to Isabelle Huppert). Well despite the quality of the movies, she's always been great, and she's great again here. Same old, same old Stewart.
Personal Shopper played at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival. It opens in UK/ROI cinemas March 17th.