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Film Review: ‘Personal Shopper’

March 10, 2017
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Olivier Assayas’ newest work is one of his most mind-bending and multi-faceted films to date that will leave you questioning your sanity.

“I don’t speak French, but I promise to work on it,” said the dumbfounded Kristen Stewart as she accepted her César–the french equivalent to the Academy Awards. She was as astonished as anyone else in the audience or around the world that night. Stewart is not only the first American actress to win the prestigious award, she is also the first American to win the accolade in over 30 years. It seems the teen idol sensation has finally broken out of her tween film pigeon-hole and entered the world of high-brow cinema. No longer anchored by the commercial necessities of American popular culture, Stewart is now a bonafide Cannes regular, making her the new actress in Europe.

And this is all thanks to her recent partnering with Olivier Assayas. Her work with the esteemed French director has made her the shining crown jewel for French cinema. From César to BAFTA, her work with Assayas has made the young starlet rise the ranks of bankable talent in Europe. And not wanting to fix something that is not broken, the “Clouds of Sils Maria” collaborators are at it again. A film that may be the director’s most nuanced film yet.

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“Personal Shopper” tells the story of Maureen, a young trendy American woman who is working in Paris as a personal shopper for a high-class Parisian celebrity. But beyond the glitzy private fashion rooms and high society culture, Maureen is searching for any signs–supernatural or otherwise–of her deceased twin brother, Lewis. Juggling her duties between the uptight Kyra and establishing communication with Lewis, Maureen becomes increasingly desperate to try and find out if her brother “is at peace.”

Assayas’ “Personal Shopper” acts as yet another vehicle for the talented Stewart to explore her capabilities as an actress. Stewart provides yet another tour-de-force performance, signaling that she is nowhere near done exploring her capacity to be not only a great movie star, but a great actress as well. From her subtle facial expressions to her embodiment of Parisian cool, Stewart excels in Assayas’ newest film. Coupled with the director’s Godardian-like editing approach, Stewart shines just as Jean Seberg did nearly half-a-century ago in “Breathless.”

Having already picked up the Best Director award at Cannes for “Personal Shopper,” Assayas commands the floor with particular grace and elegance as he explores the thematic qualities of his newest film. With a particular focus on mise-en-scéne, Assayas is able to construct multiple levels to his film that work to create a more cohesive and fully flushed-out universe. From Stewart’s ill-advised smoking habits (she shares the same malformation as her brother) to her donning her boss’ dresses, Assayas builds a world that relies just as much on its mise-en-scéne and profilmic decisions as it does on any other aspect.

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At one point in the film, a professor explains that spiritualists believe that there is a “higher world beyond our world.” And while Maureen seems to most certainly be one, it appears that her idea of it goes further than the supernatural. Beyond her belief that Lewis occupies the higher world that she is attempting to contact, she realizes that Kyra too occupies a higher world, one based in reality.

Maureen is stuck in the ordinary world of personal shoppers, baristas, drivers, delivery men and so on. Her boss, Kyra, on the other hand occupies the “higher world,” the world of glamour, haute couture fashion, expensive jewelry and galas. By sleeping in her bed, trying on her shoes, and standing in for her photo shoots, Maureen is demonstrating her desire to occupy both higher worlds–that of the supernatural and that of the célébrité.

Centralized characters are nothing new in Assayas’ films, relying on them to progress the narrative and create a coherent development. And while the French director has seldom explored the supernatural, it appears to be a natural fit for the Parisian. Furthermore, the Polanski-inspired work does not rely on jump scares or any other cheap thrill to push itself along. Instead, formal stylization and a slow narratological build-up makes “Personal Shopper” a worthy endeavor from Assayas.

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With a French New Wave sensibility–one inspired by the works of Bresson and Debord–Assayas meanders between genres, seemingly jumping from one to the other in one scene. From suspense and horror to drama and comedy, Assayas never sits on one specific syntactic and/or semiotic language. He whizzes around, unsure of how Maureen should feel. And while it could have appeared disjointed, muddled and confusing, it is anything but that. The emotional rollercoaster felt my Maureen is one that is precise, accented and never dull–just as it would be in New Wave realism.

It seems that the Stewaissances could be here to stay as well with her latest efforts in Personal Shopper. In her second film working with the French director, Stewart and Assayas seem to be signaling that this could be a regular pairing. Like Jean-Pierre Léaud and François Truffaut, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean-Luc Godard, there always seems to be a favorite pairing between director and actor in French cinema. And what is now the New French New Wave, it seems that the second generation Cahier Du Cinéma writer Olivier Assayas is poised to take over that tradition with his muse Kristen Stewart.

“Personal Shopper” screened as part of Cannes and will hit theaters in the US March 10.

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