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Personal Shopper : A Review


Estimated Reading Time : 4 minutes 52 seconds

My Rating : 4 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation : SEE IT. See it in the theatre, but be forewarned, it is a "French" film in style, rhythm and pace, but not language. If you want more Hollywood fare, skip Personal Shopper.

Personal Shopper, written and directed by Olivier Assayas, stars Kristen Stewart as a young American woman working in Paris as a personal shopper for a French female celebrity. 

Personal Shopper is a difficult film to categorize by genre, as it is part ghost story, part psychological thriller, part intimate character study all rolled into one. At its heart though, the film is really a meditation on grief. As I watched the film I kept thinking of Joan Dideon's insightful book on grieving, "The Year of Magical Thinking". Another story that kept popping into my head was Hamlet, and how his run ins with ghosts and mysticism were a way to propel the plot and the narrative forward in Shakespeare's masterpiece. 

Grief in this film, and in real life, can be an equally disorienting and enlightening experience. The grief stricken are able, and often forced, to dig deep into themselves and to see the world from a much different perspective than they are used to, which puts them distinctly at odds with the world around them. I remember, years ago, sitting on a subway train in New York City a few weeks after my best friend had been killed in a car crash. I was thinking of him and silently weeping, tears streaming down my face, and then I remembered a particularly funny moment we had shared and I laughed uncontrollably at the memory, and then cried again because I realized that those memories were all I had left. At some point I had a brief realization of where I was and I became aware of my surroundings I noticed that people on the train were looking at me in horror, and probably thought I was a crazy person. Grief will do that to you. Hamlet is great example of this, people think he has gone mad…but he hasn't, he is simply grieving. Grief knocks you out of the everyday rhythm of the world around you, and in so doing makes you seem entirely out of sorts to those still in sync with the "normal". 

When you are grieving, the veil between the worlds thins and all sorts of magical things occur (Ms. Didion might say "all sorts of magical things seem to occur"). Signs, symbols, and messages are everywhere you turn, and you are attuned to notice them. The most mundane of things can take on the most profound of meanings. The grief stricken ache for connection with the departed in order to not only confirm the depth of their feelings, but to validate both the dead and the living's existence.

And so it is with Kristen Stewart's character Maureen in Personal Shopper. She is waiting for a sign from the netherworld, and even when she gets it, it is not enough to convince her. Proof of afterlife connection only heightens her confusion, and her knowledge of what was lost in the here and now. This is the conundrum at the heart of Personal Shopper, everything is possible, but nothing may be real. And that is also a perfect summary of what it is like living with intense grief. 

This is Kristen Stewart's second film with Assayas, the first being Clouds of Sils Maria, which was a film I thoroughly enjoyed. Assayas use of metaphor and symbolism allows for him to tell stories on multiple levels, which makes for an extremely rich viewing experience. He is a confident and skilled director who never fails to surprise and intrigue.

Kristen Stewart is phenomenal as Maureen, the melancholy and morose woman trying to make sense of it all. Assayas brings out the best in the enigmatic actress, as she was also particularly good in Clouds if Sils Maria.

I remember the first time I ever saw Kristen Stewart in a film, it was in Sean Penn's Into the Wild. Her performance was absolutely electric and she jumped off the screen. She had such a smoldering presence and a visceral ache to her in Into the Wild that it was impossible to take your eyes off of her. I had a conversation with a very famous actress friend of mine after seeing the film and we both said, "who IS that girl?". My actress friend and I both marveled at Stewart's innate ability and undeniable presence and were excited to see what came next in her career. And then came the Twilight garbage and the suffocating and stultifying fame that accompanied it. 

Stewart is a luminous talent who possesses a gravitas and magnetism that permeates her every scene in Personal Shopper. Escaping from the artistic black hole that was the Twilight septic tank is no easy feat, but Stewart is going about it in exactly the right way. Doing art house and European films will not only restore her credibility but her creative spirit. She is simply too brilliant a natural talent to get swallowed up by the Hollywood shit machine. If she stays on her current trajectory, she can return to Hollywood for specific parts that invigorate her artistic soul, not just her bank account. 

I think it is not a coincidence that Stewart has teamed twice with Assayas to play someone in service to a woman who is a creature of fame. Fame nearly strangled Stewart's sublime creative gifts in the cradle, so she has a very intimate knowledge of its toxic effects. The fame game is a soul-crushing endeavor, and if undertaken by a sensitive artist like Stewart, can be a deadly one as well.  In Personal Shopper, as in The Clouds of Sils Maria, Stewart is playing with her public persona by playing off of it. Her performances in those films are like watching the actress do an active imagination gestalt with her famous alter ego in a Jungian therapy session, and it makes for remarkably compelling cinema. 

Coincidentally, today is Kristen Stewart's 27th birthday, and my birthday wish for her is that she continue to make the films she wants to make, and that speak to, and feed, her artistic soul, and not the crap that Hollywood wants her to make. She is young enough, and talented enough, to recover from the trauma of the Twilight saga, and become the great actress that she is meant to be. I for one, am rooting for her.

As for Personal Shopper, it is best described as a walk through the minefield that is our own graveyard. It is a strange and at times incredulous film, but it never veers from the path Kristen Stewart's powerful work steers it down. Director Assayas is remarkably effective in heightening the tension and drawing the viewer into the world of Maureen. It feels effortless how Assayas tightens our stomachs as we walk through a creaky old house. Every knock, every bump in the night, forces another twist of your innards. This is, at times, a horrifying film, but it is also an enlightening one, especially for those who carry the scars of grief. 

I recommend people see Personal Shopper, but to do so knowing that it is a film out of sorts with Hollywood movie making. Like someone grieving, Personal Shopper has its own rhythm, pace and view of reality, that may seem odd to those not accustomed to it. If you give the film a chance, and go along for the ride, it can be a highly entertaining and fascinating journey, and is well worth your time and effort.