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Personal Shopper
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by alejandroariera

"Ghosts in the Machine"
3 stars

I am still ambivalent about Olivier Assayas’ “Personal Shopper” weeks after seeing it at a word-of-mouth screening. It’s a frustrating film that addresses too many ideas and genres without fully developing them. It’s a ghost movie that veers into slasher territory; it is also about living in a brand-obsessed world, one where communication is only achieved through our digital devices and where artifice and materialism are at odds with spirituality. “Personal Shopper” is also emotionally empty, an intellectual exercise that never quite manages to fully excite our little grey cells.

This is Assayas’ second collaboration with actress Kristen Stewart after the far superior “Clouds of Sils Maria.” Some have called Stewart’s role as Valentina, the assistant to Juliette Binoche’s traumatized actress, in that film a supporting one. I disagree. It’s as much of a lead role as Binoche’s, Stewart’s character a mirror image of Binoche’s upon which the latter projects all of her doubts, concerns and phobias. And even though Valentina can give as good as she gets, in the end, she turns out to be as much of a spectral presence as the ones “Personal Shopper” summons. Here, though, Stewart carries the weight of the whole film on her shoulders; she’s on screen during most of the running time, Yorick Le Saux’s camera smoothly following her every step, intently focusing on her when she stands still. Stewart’s performance comes across initially as aloof, distant, indifferent. This is a woman in a state of shock, and for good reason.

As the film opens, Maureen (Stewart) is driven by a friend to an abandoned mansion in the outskirts of Paris. It’s a house full of memories for both women but more so for Maureen: her twin brother Lewis, lived and died in that house from a heart condition shared with Maureen, and his spirit might be haunting it. He was a much more experienced medium than Maureen; both made a pact that whoever died first would send the other a signal and she hopes to receive that signal tonight. And although we do see an apparition, she doesn’t and leaves disappointed the following morning.

Maureen has a daytime job as the personal shopper of supermodel Kyra (Nora Von Waldstätten) and spends most of the day riding on her scooter from one couture shop in Paris to another to pick up the latest fashion and accessories, which her client will most probably wear only once. In her spare time, Maureen watches videos on and reads about abstract painter Hilma af Klimt (who claims to have drawn inspiration from the spiritual world), watches a “long lost” movie about Victor Hugo’s career as a spiritualist and talks, when she feels like it, to her boyfriend, who is in Oman on assignment, via Skype.

A second visit to the mansion turns out to be more productive when she encounters an actual apparition that ends up vomiting an ectoplasmic substance. Was it her brother or something far more malevolent? Things begin to go bump in the digital world when, on a train trip to London to pick up new wear and accessories for her client, Maureen begins to receive text messages from an unknown number even when her phone is on airport mode. Messages that suggest the sender is watching her every move. Messages that incite and even order her to follow the sender’s instructions. Messages that imply that she could very well be in danger and that she, in following the long standing tradition of people acting stupidly in horror movies, responds to. Is the sender her brother, that malevolent apparition or something far more mundane?

This 20+ minute sequence is the film’s centerpiece, the one reason to see “Personal Shopper”. It’s suspenseful but not in the Hitchcockean sense of the word. It plays on our own ambivalence and dependence on technology, on our curiosity on our impulses to answer that message right bloody now even when we don’t know where it’s coming from. It’s a sequence that requires a high degree of naturalism from the actor to pull it off and Stewart, who in the last few years has finally freed herself from those “Twilight” shackles that chained her for so long, pulls it off with ease. The gruesome murder that soon follows promises to take the film in a different direction but Assayas is a master at frustrating expectations and negating gratification. Yes, there is a police investigation and, yes, there is even a resolution but they are handled as if they were of no consequence to the main story even though they clearly unhinge Maureen. The film ends with an epilogue in Oman that is as playfully and suggestively open-ended as the one in “Clouds of Sils Maria” but not as intellectually satisfying.

Maureen is a character that remains adrift, ethereal, throughout the film. When she finally breaks down near the end, she seems to regain a sense of self, coming to terms with her own grief and loneliness. Stewart’s challenging and distant performance deserves all the credit for what works in the film.

Assayas deliberately keeps his audience at bay. His sequences always end to a fade in black to fade right back up almost in media res, leaving gaps for us to fill, suggesting connections where there are probably none. He prefers to broach ideas rather than address them directly. The film’s constant shift in gears is far more frustrating than enlightening. Assayas, in the end, is unable to thread all of these concepts into a coherent and satisfying whole.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=30835&reviewer=434
originally posted: 03/16/17 12:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 New York Film Festival For more in the 2016 New York Film Festival series, click here.

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