Thursday 28 December 2017
Belgium 2016 (released 2017)
Directed by Olivier Assayas
Icon/Lionsgate Blu Ray Zone B
Warning: Very minor spoilers.
Personal Shopper is a film I wanted to see on its release in UK cinemas earlier in the year but, alas, it was only at my cinema for one week when I wasn’t at liberty to make the trip. I’ve not seen a lot of Olivier Assayas’ cinema but the four I have seen I’ve liked quite a lot so, I was kinda looking forward to this one. I’m not particularly a fan of Kristen Stewart, who plays the film’s main protagonist Maureen but, I figured she must be pretty capable if someone like Assayas was interested in putting her in one of his movies and, yes, she’s pretty great in this thing.
The film deals with Maureen, who is the twin sister of a recently deceased brother. She’s also a medium and she has been waiting around in Paris for the last eight months or so, looking for a sign from him from beyond the grave. While she’s there she works as a personal clothes shopper, picking and buying clothes for her aloof and mostly unsympathetic celebrity employer... fashion items which cost an arm and a leg. She is also doing a little work on the side such as something we see her doing at the start of the film, which is staying a few nights in a potential house purchase for a couple to see if it has any specific spirits inhabiting it and, if there are, whether they are benign or malevolent ghosts.
From what I know of the cinema of Assayas, the film is fairly typical of him in some ways. The acting/writing is quite naturalistic in style which is what is reflected from the film’s key performances (my guess is there’s probably a lot of improvisation going on with the actors) and the lack of story beats and nothing too tangible happening (for the most part) usually ensure that nothing too concrete occurs although, quite often, there is a strong sense of ambiguity injected into what you are watching. Personal Shopper is no different in his approach although, he did surprise me because, since he is such a loose filmmaker, I was amazed that within half an hour we had a very tangible spectre thrown in to the mix and the use of CGI on this fantasy element was completely unexpected, at least to me, in a film from this writer/director.
As it happens, on completing her job for the couple, Maureen has to cope with a continuous series of texts from an unknown number and the implication is that it’s either the ghost that she encounters in the house stalking and texting her through the rest of the film or, possibly, her dead brother. We then have another ‘incident’ which I won’t spoil for you here (but which is on at least one of the trailers for this) and the film kind of turns into an almost Hitchcockian mystery but with the added spectral shenanigans juxtaposed and possible joining this mystery format.
From the outset, the director uses very controlled camera set ups (which is what I was expecting from him) and this juxtaposition of the utilitarian style of the acting with the rigid beauty of the shot design is something which is very much, I think, a signature of this director’s work. Right from the very first shot he is framing things using vertical planes in a very blatant and rigid manner and, of course, positioning the performers in various, specifically defined sections of the screen. In fact, he seems to be using vertical lines all over this thing, especially at the start, while he also uses camera movement around these artificially focused spaces to both reveal and conceal the characters or certain aspects of them when they move. For example, a partially naked Kristen Stewart will walk behind a column into a room and as the camera dollies along parallel to where she was, she emerges behind another plane wearing a full outfit. Stuff like this, of course, keeps the viewing interesting and, if nothing else, most fans of cinema should be able to enjoy this film on a visual level.
As for me, I thought it was a great little film and quite unique in some ways.
For instance, Maureen's phone is almost as much of a star in some of the scenes as she is... as she is constantly bombarded by texts from what could be, depending on your interpretation of the visual data you are given, a pesky spirit. Although, I have to say, I was feeling a lot less sympathetic to the character of Maureen when I realised she was putting in a space before the question marks on the end of her sentences. That’s just appalling... as were the moments when she uses two question marks to re-emphasise her questions. Seriously? Are we supposed to empathise with protagonists who are too thuggish to know good grammar these days?
Anyway, the movie builds to a point when you think the mystery is more or less solved but just before you get to the naming of the resolution, Assayas pauses for a sequence where we, quite definitively, see a ghost making its way down to the exit of the hotel and out through the front doors. It’s done without actual sighting of the ghost in much the same way as you would see it done in those old Invisible Man movies of the 1930s and 40s. An unseen presence which activates things in the environment as it goes about its business.
And then, when you think it’s all over, the film carries on and we are back to being in a very low key mood with the performance again. And then there’s this marvellous little sequence where something very bold happens in the background of a shot which is quite fascinating and leads to a scene later on which is kind of an end coda to the film but which, frankly, could mean different things to different people and clearly does. I’ve seen this end debated on various web sites since I watched this on Christmas Eve this year and, frankly, the ambiguity which I associate with the director seems to have confused the heck out of people (many of whom are even describing/jumping to conclusions to something in the narrative order in which I think they are quite mistaken). Ultimately, I think I know what has happened but I’m not going to add my own interpretation into the mix because a) it would constitute a main spoiler and, b) I don’t think any one interpretation can carry the weight of the ending on its own without falling into certain difficulties which require a major reinterpretation of all the scenes after the last time we see Maureen in a hotel room.
However, what I will say is that Personal Shopper is a pretty good movie and I’m glad I saw this the year it was released because now I can place it within my top 25 favourite films of the year. Definitely a movie for all the self proclaimed cinephiles out there... as well as those of us who, you know, just love the odd movie. One of the better Olivier Assayas films I have seen.