Blu-ray Review: PERSONAL SHOPPER Haunts Criterion

Kristen Stewart re-teams with director Olivier Assayas for this unique supernatural mystery.

Featured Critic; St. Louis, MO
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Blu-ray Review: PERSONAL SHOPPER Haunts Criterion

American actress Kristen Stewart and filmmaker Olivier Assayas are back, and this time, it’s PERSONAL.

But more than that, it’s mysterious, unknowable. Here, we find that the mysteries one assumes to be central to any given story labeled as such (a “mystery”) are different from the mysteries of the more fundamental nature, the Great Mysteries of Life.

This is no puzzle of who killed who, or even what some ghost may want. This is a mystery of the human soul, and the somber venture for the spark to awaken it. (Perhaps everyone here is dead, only by varying degrees?) One can almost hear the ghostly voice of Tom Petty singing “Working on a mystery... Going wherever it leads...”, the single slowed down beyond 33 1/3 RPM.

Stewart plays an uncertain medium desperate for a promised sign from her recently deceased twin brother. She shares with him the heart condition that suddenly killed him, thus cementing her own sense of mortality, a likely cause for her self-imposed Parisian isolation from anyone who cares for her, or vice versa.

Are her supernatural abilities actually real? Even she is skeptical. We witness Maureen making other ghostly contact in no indefinite terms, but when we watch her try on the clothes of her employer, which she’s not allowed to wear, it’s apparent that this woman is indeed no medium. More of a small. It’s just how she is.

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All elements are of a piece, however scattered and arbitrary they may seem. And Assayas’ Personal Shopper is nothing if not a tightly wound dichotomy of elements, seemingly scattered and arbitrary. But, the tensions of it all are right there. We might not see them or know exactly what they all are, but they are most certainly there.

Maureen, alone for much of the movie, works as a personal shopper for a superstar personality. She spends her days zipping around Paris on a motor scooter, loaded to the hilt with couture shopping bags filled with high-end who-knows-what. (Mostly, jewelry and gowns.) She hates her job, stating that feeling early on. She longs to put her time to more satisfying use, reaching out to her dead brother. He’s the only thing really keeping her in town. It’s a very specific case of the material world butting heads with the purely spiritual.

Stewart as Maureen bears the brunt of the film’s deliberate tension right there on her famous face. Too famous to be taken as seriously as this performance warrants, Assayas understands that even by turning the tables to where her character is a nobody in the shadow of such a superstar (again), the central tension of Kristen Stewart will be exactly subverted and yet remain recognizable, relatable. And all the more satisfyingly.

Stewart acts with her whole self in a way that is all her own. Assayas goes on to detail her nearly invisible skill in a new ten minute interview that was recorded for this release. Of note to this viewer is the way she rethinks the whole notion of acting with one’s hands. The way she frequently takes just a moment to ripple her fingers just before committing to opening a door or sending a text is just one tiny yet significant example of the way she completely commands the frame in this film.

In this way, she and Assayas are completely in tune. He never resists her flourishes; he’s wise enough to know she’s onto something. Likewise, with both this and their previous outing, The Clouds of Sila Maria, Stewart has never been more at home with any other filmmaker. She’s wise enough to know that, and by accounts all too happy to return.

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This is a Paris where the mundane can and does so often give way to the arbitrary, yet remains a grind. The whole city, interiors and exteriors, is shot in such an effectively dreary yet ethereal manner, that the phrase “We’ll always have Paris” would come off not romantically, but as a curse that can’t be lifted. The Blu-ray does an exceptional job of communicating this ghostly atmosphere of isolation, yet being firmly urban Eurocentric. The audio track, full of ghostly thuds and stark chamber music, packs a wallop.

There are not many extras to be found on this Blu-ray, though what we do get is satisfying. There is the aforementioned ten-minute interview with Assayas, articulate and beaming like a man in love. The only other bonus feature of note is the 45-minute press conference following the film’s premiere at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. 

In this, his finest film, Assayas weaves a world that is exhausted with itself, yet also wields a very active unseen layer of activity working in the interest of an ultimate order that is sometimes confounding. Whether this the writer/director operating behind the scenes or the perplexing work of wandering spirits or an even greater power, it’s clear that in the case of Personal Shopper at least, something is in the air; something that was lacking several films ago. Before, it was in the clouds. Now it has arrived where we live.

Personal Shopper is a true zap of ball lightning to a cinema set in its ways when it comes to filmic realizations of young women, Paris, and the supernatural. Although it’s a very recent movie, this is a completely worthwhile, if mysterious, addition to the Criterion Collection.

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Kristen StewartOlivier AssayasParisPersonal Shoppersupernatural drama

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