‘Personal Shopper’ celebrates the mystery in French cinema
We don’t always know what actually happens in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”
And, like that film, “Personal Shopper” is filled with so many twists and turns - some real, some fake - that we aren’t totally certain, as the film ends, what has happened and what has been imagined. But we don’t care. We are totally spooked, thoroughly entertained, and we’ve experienced a star turn from Kristen Stewart who proves, with each performance, how much more she brings to the screen than her “Twilight” appearances would suggest.
Directed by French moviemaker Oliver Assayas - who also made “Clouds of Sils Maria” with Stewart and Juliet Binoche - “Personal Shopper” could promise more than it delivers. The opening sequence, of Stewart wandering through an empty house, suggests the chills of Hitchcock. We know, from this start, that there must be something to the mysterious moments, calls and texts that fill Stewart’s life. She arrives, as the film begins, at the home of a lady she works for, quickly establishing that her client is demanding, pampered and outrageous, as Stewart navigates the various ways to pamper. But the personal shopper can’t completely focus on her job because her life - with its mysterious interruptions - continues to intervene.
Much of what distracts Stewart focuses on the recent death of her twin brother. We quickly learn they were close and that he may have died under suspicious circumstances. We also observe that he tries to communicate with his sister and, as Stewart waits for signs of his presence, she lets that possibility get in the way of work she needs to do. So we get to know a young lady who wants to please her diva boss but finds herself caught up in the possibility of communicating with her dead brother’s spirit.
This intersection of supernatural thriller and workplace drama may not feel natural at first but Assayas directs in such an assured manner, and Stewart is so compelling an actress, that we soon forget how silly the whole thing may be. Yes, too much of what happens is too coincidental or convenient. But Assayas plants enough doubt in our reactions - as Stewart plays to the possible logic of her approaches - that we begin to wonder if what we may be seeing could actually happen to these characters. And that gives the film an extra layer of fun.
Stewart makes the movie. As outrageous as its premise, and exaggerated its approach, the actress insists on playing the absurd as if it could actually occur. Of course, every time Stewart seems mystified by the voices she hears, the texts she receives, the images she sees, we’re transported back to a dozen other films that use similar conventions. But Stewart is such a natural actress that even the familiar can feel fresh and the artificial can ring true. She never begs us to accept the film’s authenticity. Stewart simply makes us believe in the character. As she helps us see what could happen through this personal shopper’s eyes, she helps us believe in what this lady may face. And that gives us a great roller coaster ride at the movies.
“Personal Shopper,” running 1 hour, 45 minutes, is rated R for some language, sexuality, nudity and a bloody violent image. It can be streamed online.