Saturday, March 25, 2017

Personal Shopper is another alluring puzzle from Olivier Assayas

Grief is full of confusing oxymorons.  It takes something away from you, leaving only a hole in its place.  Yet it also exists as this solid, heavy entity that weighs you down.  It haunts and hounds and surrounds you, while also causing feelings of deep loneliness.  It's a feeling that we are united by, in the sense that we will all feel it someday, and yet each instance is so unique that it still feels like a singular experience.  Grief is tough, and when you're in the thick of it, it can feel like an all-consuming horror show.

Personal Shopper, the latest film from French auteur Olivier Assayas, aims to tackle that idea in the form of a ghost story for the digital age.  We follow Maureen (Kristen Stewart), a personal shopper for a famous model, as she wrestles with the recent loss of her twin brother Lewis, who died of a congenital heart defect.  Her and her brother were also spiritual mediums, and when they were younger they promised each other that whoever died first would contact the sibling left behind.  Because of this, Maureen spends her nights alone in his creaky old house, hoping for some sign that a part of him still exists there.  Things do go bump in the night, but she never receives anything clear enough to conclude that it's him.  And on top of that, she starts receiving strange messages from an unknown party who won't confirm their identity, which only makes her more dogged in her pursuit for answers.

If that premise doesn't make it clear enough, Personal Shopper asks you to accept a fair amount of silliness.  The dialogue in the text message thread between Maureen and unknown is silly.  Any time the movie shows a ghost or specter is very silly (and cheap-looking).  And there are many more moments that, when taken in isolation, come off as bizarre and amateurish as the featherweight story spins in all manner of directions.  But if you're somehow able to move past that, you'll find something that's fascinating and strangely affecting.

This film is an enigma.  More accurately, it's a Rorschach Test: it doesn't provide any concrete answers, you just see what you want to see in it.  To me, it's a meditation on the ways grief and loss leave you searching for something you'll never truly find.  Maureen is desperate for a sign from her dead brother, some sort of comfort to put her at ease, but she's never satisfied with what she gets.  Though she does see a ghost in his house, it's not him.  She thinks the texts from Unknown might be him, but it remains inconclusive.  There's a figure resembling a human that we see near the end -- though Maureen never does, as her back is turned the entire time -- but even we can't be sure it's him, because we never see a picture of him throughout the film.  Maureen can't seem to fill the hole that her loss has left, not even in the feeling of a new identity that trying on her boss' clothes briefly provides.

At one point, Maureen is asked what she will do after she makes contact with Lewis, and there's a pained pause until she lands on the answer: "Go on with the rest of my life."  Her grief leaves her stuck, but it almost feels like a state she wants to remain in while others, like Lewis' girlfriend who quickly finds a new boyfriend, move on.  In a way, relinquishing her grief feels like relinquishing her brother.

The conflicts and pains Maureen experiences are largely internal, but it works because of Kristen Stewart's incredible performance.  She's got her detractors -- partially based on lingering animosity from the Twilight series and partially based on her idiosyncratic acting style -- but much like her work in Assayas' previous film, Clouds of Sils Maria, she is completely captivating here.  It's true that Stewart has a limited range, but she finds an infinite space within that range.  Her level of naturalism allows for layers of nuance, which is necessary in a film that spends so much time on her alone in the frame.

Along with Stewart's absorbing performance, the film is carried along by Assayas' quiet control of the pacing and direction, as it changes on a dime from being laconic at one point then eerie and thrilling at the next.  Like all of his films, there are moments of odd and clunky writing.  In Clouds of Sils Maria, there was the overwrought Maloja Snake play; here, it's mostly contained to the text message from Unknown, who speaks in a way that no human being would naturally speak.  But Assayas works on a thematic level that focuses on raw feeling, not on a pure plot or logical level.  For some that's bothersome, but the ideas and images he tends to conjure up transcend any flaws in the writing.

Personal Shopper is a film that leaves you with many questions: Who was responsible for the murder of Maureen's boss Kyra?  Who was Unknown?  Was Maureen's brother there at the end or is it all in her imagination?  Does she receive closure?  I'd be lying if I said that there weren't aspects beyond those questions that left me puzzled, but it's the kind of movie where I'm okay with not knowing it all.  What matters more is I can't shake the emotions it implanted in me, and the more I try to untangle its threads the more I like it.  Like the ghosts that haunt the corners of its story,  Personal Shopper isn't a corporeal being that can be grasped and held down.  It's a wispy work of art that always exists frustratingly, fascinatingly just out of our grip.

No comments:

Post a Comment