Kristen Stewart is unquestionably the most exciting talent at work today, and her shimmering central performance in Parisian auteur Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper is absolutely mesmerising. If audiences are to see a more exquisitely textured, thematically complex role in 2017, then they are beyond lucky. This kaleidoscopic vision of ethereal intrigue provides a simply uncategorisable cinematic experience which is destined to divide, but the very best of our art form is that which cannot be generalised by blanket terms and consensus. You aren’t likely to see a more polarising film than Personal Shopper in 2017, and you aren’t likely to see a finer one, either.
Assayas’ beguiling oddity – a vast alteration from his equally brilliant Clouds of Sils Maria in 2014 – underpins the lavish fashion scene in the French capital; a sphere rendered by the finest threads, the wealthiest clients, and the most volatile competitors. Stewart navigates Maureen, the titular personal shopper, who works on behalf of a scathing German designer and model. Despite networking with the upper-class, she finds herself on the fringes of an alternative lifestyle, and indeed at the mercy of her employer, who’ll seemingly go to ludicrous lengths before a payment is provided. However for Maureen, who buzzes through the heady Parisian streets atop her moped, the job is merely as such. The real reason she has left the United States and returned to her decrepit childhood home is for her brother; a twin, who has recently passed. The pair shared a spiritual connection and the ability to communicate with ghosts, and now she is waiting for a “sign”, based upon an oath the twosome devised as children.
Personal Shopper is a work of observational genius. Assayas has such a remarkable understanding of film language, and he showcases every inch of it throughout. Fluid frames soaked with haunting subtext occupy its runtime, whilst his screen subjects are unravelled with the most meticulous of touches. Every finite image is coordinated with precision and intent; ensure the most particularly directed experience imaginable. He establishes an all-consuming mood, and an undeniably eerie tone from the get-go, without ever the reliance on a key sequence or moment. For an auteur of his calibre – one whose approach to visual storytelling is so tactile and sensory – the form on offer here is simply outstanding; little wonder he claimed the Prix de la mise en scène at Cannes last year, then.
Like Assayas’ lens, there is a lingering sense of dread throughout the 105 minute duration; as if an icy hand is ready to caress your shoulder. The bewitching beats are ever-so-suprising, that the spectator will find it difficult to know exactly why they feel this way, but feel nonetheless. For in Personal Shopper, quietness bellows deafeningly, and stillness shivers frantically. One of the many exceptional scenes in this entirely exceptional film sees Maureen switch wheels for rails as she boards the Eurostar from Paris to London St. Pancras International. What unfolds across her commute is a virtual exchange in which verbal dialogue seizes, and instant messaging ensues. A common argument in out technologically-dependant society is that services such as WhatsApp, iMessage et al actually breed anxiety. We’ve sent a message to another, and seen that they have read or interacted with it, but no reply, or perhaps a reply is started, then stopped. Why aren’t they replying? Has one done something wrong? You know the drill. Well, Maureen’s encounter upon the cold surface of the black mirror cranks up the uncertainty of terror tenfold. Trust us…
The weight of this feverishly audacious triumph is placed upon Stewart’s shoulders. It is a role which asks so much of her and her abilities; exposing every slight detail and insecurity of the captivating character and then some. Operating in virtually every frame, Stewart is never less than extraordinary. Across her career she has opted for fascinating projects, working with statement filmmakers across conflicting genres, and has been consistently at the top of her game, but this performance is something else. It’s on another level; a showpiece for the craft of screen acting. She captures Maureen’s vulnerability, emotional conflict, and psychosexuality with potency and power, building a simply unforgettable persona. Stewart is both skin-pricklingly seductive, and soul-searchingly profound: two entirely contrasting, yet towering traits.
Now as mentioned earlier, Personal Shopper will not suit every palette: it is, after all, an experimental arthouse film. It is bracing and radical; a picture which refuses to be pigeonholed and neatly labelled. Those in search of say more pedestrian entertainment could find themselves baffled and riled by Assayas’ latest, but the fear of disliking is no reason not to investigate – after all, you could exit the theatre with a new favourite movie. But for those who long for the boundaries to be pushed, the medium to be challenged, the bar to be raised, look no further. This is celestial cinema – mediative, magical, masterful. A work of art from a creative pairing operating in sheer harmony.
Personal Shopper opens across UK cinemas on 17th March.