Monday 24 April 2017

Personal Shopper (2017) - Movie Review

I wish this didn’t need to be reiterated, but the fact remains: Twilight is long since over and done with. Everyone attached to those films has long since moved on to (mostly) better things far removed from it. However, even with that said, I keep getting the feeling that people aren’t giving Kristen Stewart, the most memorable part of those films for all the wrong reasons, her fair due. Maybe it’s because, in the dungeons of comment sections and web forums, jokes about Bella’s utter uselessness and unintentionally malicious behaviour still ring out. That association is hard to break, even if you’re fortunate enough to unironically like those films.
The shame in that sentiment furthers once you realise that, since 2012, Stewart has not only kept fairly busy but also done some genuinely fantastic work like with American Ultra and Clouds Of Sils Maria. It’s hardly a surprise that this film, written and directed by the man behind Clouds and who got Stewart to give one of her best performances to date, would be on my radar. But does it continue her winning streak (ignoring that Billy Lynn ever happened) or does it add a chink to the chain?

The plot: By day, Maureen (Kristen Stewart) works as a personal shopper for wealthy actress Kyra (Nora von Waldst├Ątten). By night, she works as a medium as she, much like her deceased twin brother, has the ability to communicate with the dead. However, when she gets contacted by a spirit that she can’t identify, it seems that her otherwise passive life is about to take a drastic turn.

Writer/director Olivier Assayas wrote this film specifically for Kristen Stewart and that is quite evident in a number of respects. For a start, it’s essentially her story and we spend almost all of the film focusing on just her, resulting in the rest of the cast feeling like window dressing in most scenes. For another, this is the kind of performance that only comes about through a combination of an actor and a director who know precisely what each other is capable of. As a result, this is easily Stewart’s single best performance to date and bear in mind this is coming from someone who has been watching her post-Twilight career with great interest because, quite frankly, I always knew that she was capable of something this incredible.
Never mind how she manages to take a character whose main attribute is her lack of agency and imbue it with so much energy that I’m starting to wonder how this isn’t the version of Bella that we ended up getting. Where she shines the most is when Maureen is at her shakiest and most struck by the events around her; the way she delivers her stutters and very nervous disposition is about as true to life as you can get without just pulling someone off the street.

It seems that Stewart and Assayas’ past chemistry is intact behind the camera as well, seeing as this is just as heavily layered in its writing as Clouds Of Sils Maria. It carries the same intent of character exploration as Clouds, except here it’s a lot more insular and keeps its general themes on a more grounded level. Maureen’s character is remarkably well established right from the offset, showing her as someone who essentially exists just to serve other people. Whether it’s the whims of her employer as a personal shopper or trying to connect with spirits as a medium, she is shown as passive and lacking in any real immediacy with her own life and ambitions.
Through this, the film serves as a person’s search for their own identity that isn’t stapled onto the movements of others, even those that have departed from this world, and the end result is honestly rather gripping. This manifests itself in a lot of long takes of Maureen walking through rooms and just… existing, and that in and of itself is rather gripping. I usually have a real disdain for films that try and make the lack of action notable because something actually interesting could happen at any moment, but here, it honestly feels warranted. These scenes, particularly when she’s on her own on a train, gives a sense of how empty her life is and how little real contact she has with other people.

Given how this is a ghost story, what kind of ghost story is it? Is it the standard fare where the drama hinges on how the supernatural interact with the living characters? Is it a more Guillermo Del Toro-style affair where it’s a dramatic story that just happens to have ghosts in it? Well, it’s a bit of both. Maureen herself is shown as a rather passive medium in how she treats ghosts with the same level of enthusiasm (read: little to none) as her day job and, quite frankly, her disconnection with her gifts ends up playing a large part in her arc come film’s end.
However, the way that medium and spirituality is weaved into the story fits right in with Assayas’ very thickly layered mode of scripting. Early on, we see Maureen showing interest in a deceased painter who, along with being ahead of her time in terms of style, also had it in her will that her work be kept hidden until twenty years after her death. Given how notions of unfinished business and people only getting attention after they are able to engage with it are old-school staples of ghost stories, this lends some nice subtextual touches to the film that will surely benefit people who like obsessively read into how films are written. You can see why I like it, I’m sure.
There’s also a showing of how spirituality has changed along with the rest of the world in terms of technology, resulting in scenes of Maureen communicating with the dead in rather mundane ways. Knowing how even more recent films involving ghosts usually stick with the antiquated forms of communication, it’s quite refreshing to see a more contemporary spin on the idea.

Unfortunately, this film isn’t all good and its faults are actually rather glaring. For one, Assayas seems to have a fetish for fades-to-black because every other scene ends with one, making the audience feel like they’re drifting in and out of consciousness. Given how I’ve seen the words “dull” and “pretentious” attached to this film by other critics, I’m willing to bet that that has something to do with it. There’s also somewhat of a problem when it comes to how the supernatural element plays into Maureen’s progression as a character, largely through a series of text exchanges. Now, on one hand, it fits with the story as it ends up being the first step towards Maureen coming into her own as an individual. On the other hand, once we start getting what this film seems to think are definite answers on the mysteries in the plot, it starts to fall apart in terms of making sense. Honestly, it’s the same issue I had with the ending to Clouds in how it, all of a sudden, goes down a more abstract route that the rest of the film seemed to avoid.
Now, while the actual conclusion here is definitely more satisfying, it does suffer a lot more from the “didn’t see this coming, did you?” mode of writing that starts to make things feel a bit pointless before too long. It keeps dropping these little moments that you would think would be leading to something, especially with how she ends up embroiled in a murder mystery for barely half an act of the film, but it all gets hand-waved away at the end in a moment that genuinely makes me think that there is a big chunk of the script missing. After seeing how well the film’s writing can get during the rest of it, it’s frankly embarrassing that all of that just gets shuffled away and off-screen at that, culminating in just a single line of dialogue to explain everything. It’s rare that I’ll cover a film that is putting in all of the effort and none of the effort at the exact same time.

All in all, for better and for worse, this is exactly the kind of film I was expecting from the people who gave us Clouds Of Sils Maria. It’s incredibly well-acted, with Kristen Stewart giving a career high-mark performance, the writing is thick with subtext that will definitely appeal to the in-depth audiences out there and the way it handles its subject matter, both as a character study and as a depiction of mediumship, is wonky in places but still shows a lot of thought and care for the most part. That said, it also suffers from the same badly-handled attempt at concluding the story which ends up detracting from the film’s worth as a whole.

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