2016 Film Reviews

London Film Festival Review: Olivier Assayas’ ‘Personal Shopper’


Personal Shopper, in many ways, can be seen as a sequel to Clouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas’ previous feature. Both films focus on the existence of the supernatural in modern life. Both have Kristen Stewart playing characters who, despite being in a position of servitude, harbor intense affect and agency. Nevertheless, the supernatural is contained within the realm of nature in Clouds of Sils Maria, while the strange and unusual permeate into the supposedly safe yet confined spaces of mansions, apartments and even hotel elevators in Personal Shopper. The result is a cross-genre ghost story of which elements of suspense, mystery and thriller all converge, creating an unbalanced atmosphere where every single incident seems to carry a larger transcendental meaning. While Personal Shopper’s script sadly fails to adhere to any coherent themes, Stewart’s performance emerges as the spiritual driving force that elevates the otherworldly quality of the film.

To say that Personal Shopper unveils Stewart giving the best performance so far in her career is scarcely a hyperbolic claim. In the film, Stewart’s character, Maureen, is torn between a desire to understand the past, to figure out what has happened to her twin brother when he dies, and a fear of the future. Since she and her brother share the same heart defect, Maureen is afraid that she too will soon be snatched away by death. Thus, her body represents a site of physical and spiritual contradictions, and Stewart masterfully characterizes Maureen as being simultaneously restless and trapped. For instance, as a personal shopper, Maureen is always on the go, and the film spends a considerable amount of screen time depicting this ease of modern travelling. One moment, Maureen paces along the clothes rack of couture boutique in Paris. And the next, she jumps on a train to London. Adding to the character’s physical activeness is the way she ditches public transports in favor of her own motorbike. The film frequently shows Maureen on her bike, arms alarmingly heavy with shopping bags, yet somehow her small figure, draped in a tough black leather jacket, still navigates through bustling Paris with an apparent effortlessness. However, in contrast to her willingness to be on the move, Maureen is unable to distance herself from painful past events. A mere broken glass, or a text message, can send her into a state of disarray. And this is where the genius of Stewart’s performance comes into play.

In her article “The Passion of the Material,” Vivian Sobchack argues that the subjective lived body and the objective world are not separate — opposing entities are, in fact, intertwined. Thus, according to Sobchack, “the passion of suffering brings subjective being into intimate contact with its brute materiality and links it, as well, to the passive, mute and inanimate objects of the world.” In other words, through grief, the subjective body is prone to subjecting itself to being objectified by outside forces. Stewart’s Maureen, through mourning her brother, does exactly this. Her choice to stay in a haunted house communicates a masochistic desire to be subjected to supernatural occurrences. In the same vein, her decision to continue texting with an unknown number — with absolute disregard to possible external consequences — exhibits the same willingness to submit to the outside world. One of the most memorable scenes in Personal Shopper comes when Maureen’s entire body, from her head to her fingertips, violently shakes, yet she continues on typing her replies to the unknown number on her phone. The sublime quality of Personal Shopper is displayed precisely through Maureen’s characterization and Stewart’s acting; the offering of her body as a space where the real and the supernatural converge is almost martyr-like.

Besides Stewart’s inspiring turn as Maureen, Personal Shopper unfortunately merits little praise in other aspects. At times, the script comes off as contrived, and the story’s events are merely glued together by Maureen’s actions. While the incoherent of the plot might undermine Maureen’s transcendental suffering, Personal Shopper remains one of the few films that succeeds in its attempt to equate the process of suffering to the state of surrendered subjectivity.

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