Personal Shopper (France/Germany/CZR/Belgium 2016)
Personal Shopper is one of the best releases of 2017, even though it’s technically a 2016 release - this doesn’t really matter, except it does … to me. Among 2017’s films, it would have been Top 3 or 4 but among 2016’s, it would fall to Top 10. Still good, but you get my point.
The contrast isn’t subtle for the protagonist in Personal Shopper. As played by Kristen Stewart, 27-year-old Maureen’s job that brings her money is the title role, being the personal shopper for a high profile, high maintenance star named Kyra, while her gift resides in being a paranormal medium. Almost all of this unfolds in Paris, though there is a brief sojourn to London and the film ends somewhere in the Persian world.
The details are slow to come, but we eventually learn that her twin brother Lewis died of a heart attack three months prior, and she repeatedly returns to the old mansion he intended to restore to see if, per childhood vow, he would make contact with her were he to die.
The film is almost an inverted version of A Ghost Story, one of 2017’s best films (so I guess that means that A Ghost Story is almost an inversion of Personal Shopper) - in that film, the story is about the ghost whereas in Personal Shopper, it’s about the life of the one the ghost chooses to haunt.
It’s not a scary film - there is more suspense in a scene where Maureen, in Kyra’s vacant apartment, tries on a dress, an act strictly forbidden by Kyra; Maureen is there to go to the stores and buy the clothes and the jewelry but is not allowed to try any of them on, even to size them - she is chosen for her youth, her taste and her impressive ability to take Kyra’s spoiled passive aggression, most of which comes via text message and phone call.
There is a great deal of depth and detail in Personal Shopper, evidence of it being something of a passion project for its Writer/Director, Olivier Assayas. We are treated to a footnote in the history of abstract art that precedes Kandinsky, as well as an asterisk in Victor Hugo’s career when he was exiled in Jersey (not New Jersey, Jersey, which I include only as a nod to my friend Cyd, who used to live in Jersey, not New Jersey).
Assayas takes an effective risk in the middle of the film - Maureen receives a text conversation on her iPhone from Unknown, and who Unknown is remains a mystery throughout the film. There are hints that it’s someone we’ve been introduced to, there are hints it’s Lewis, but there are other variations in the long text conversation as she moves from apartment to scooter to train to London to train and back to Paris that it may not be who we think it is - I won’t spoil it. Anyone who knows the quirks of an iPhone's Message system - its sounds, the three dots, the Read message - will understand the tension that ratchets up with each ensuing set of dots.
I didn’t think of this as a payoff film the first time I saw it, and now that I’ve seen it twice, I’ll simply note that Assayas almost includes more plot than he needs, but he resolves an act of last-reel violence in a way that keeps with the parameters he’s set for the film. As with A Ghost Story, there are payoffs, but they take patience and time.
It’s excellent work, and can currently be viewed for free if you subscribe to Showtime, and it’s available on Amazon Prime.
Kristen Stewart did it right. After her tweeter debut in The Safety of Objects and then the Jodie Foster thriller Panic Room where her acting chops were put on display and she showed the early signs of being a star, much like generational peers Natalie Portman in The Professional or Scarlet Johansson in The Horse Whisperer, Stewart did a series of smaller films before landing the coveted lead in the screen adaptation of Twilight, a series that had ever bit the rabid following that Stephanie Meyer’s series of novels did among teenage girls (both in fact and at heart) and banked Stewart the kind of “f*** you” money that wouldn’t satisfy most people with egos big enough to be movie stars, but it apparently satisfied Stewart, as she has continued to star in the kinds of smaller, low-key films that people like me love yet are almost impossible to find in theaters in-between the two coasts.
Stewart is attractive enough to carry the right film, but she’s not a bombshell nor does she try to be - don't misunderstand me, she is very good looking, but she embodies a certain aloofness that bombshells avoid like the plague. She is much better at playing the kind of beta female whether it’s in a blockbuster like the Twilight series or films like Personal Shopper. What she can play better than most off her peers is a) smart and b) haunted, the latter of which is on display throughout her career. Part of the fun of watching Stewart on-screen is the fact that she often appears as though she’s appearing on-screen in spite of herself, that’s she’d rather be doing something more intellectually satisfying or romantically fulfilling.
You’re probably aware that 50 Shades of Grey started out as fan fiction based on the Twilight novels, and then over time evolved into a trilogy of books that along with The DaVinci Code is the King Kong of book-publishing over the last two decades (I’m waiting for the third film to come out and watch all of them before passing judgment on them as movies).
I bring this up just to square a not-relevant circle, but one that is interesting to me: Stewart starred in Twilight, 50 is inspired by Twilight but goes in a completely different, more adult direction, and then Stewart stars in Personal Shopper.
Personal Shopper, as noted, is about a woman whose job it is to buy very pretty, very expensive things for another woman, things she is expressly forbidden from even trying on, much less wearing out on the town. That isn't a fantasy, it's both presented-as and likely would be a kind of materialistic purgatory, which is part of Personal Shopper's clever premise of juxtaposing the spiritual with the material, and references are made throughout the film to how strange a job it is for a woman so connected to the spiritual world to make her scratch from the most banal of materialistic fulfillment, especially for another person.
Alternative view: A job's a job.
There is a theory not original to me that the popularity of the 50 Shades novels rests not in the steamy sex/sadomasochism scenes, but in the fact that the films fulfill the basest desire most Western women have in a world where they have the vote, the paycheck, the career and the socially-acceptable hypergamy: it is the fantasy about being able to buy whatever the hell you want with the money provided by your young billionaire boyfriend, all for the price of doing something you’ve already fantasized about doing anyway.
It’s a cynical view but I don’t think it’s off-base, and Personal Shopper shows not only the flip-side of the fantasy, but also where it fails in reality - it’s no fun having access to all that stuff if you can’t use it.