I can’t really think of many actors whose name inspires sight-unseen mockery and ridicule than Kristen Stewart. Granted, these feelings are most commonly expressed by trolls from the safety of their keyboards, so I take these with a bucket of salt. Of course, the same vitriol is directed at Robert Pattinson so you know the common thread here: the Twilight series, where they played Bella Swan and Edward Cullen respectively. I haven’t seen any movies n this series, so my exposure to Stewart is pretty limited, but based on what I have seen, I’ve nothing against her, and in Personal Shopper she acquits herself quite well as the lead character.
Personal Shopper is an example of the “American abroad” storyline, something that I, as a Scotsman, have always been interested in for whatever reason. You know the kind: an American character spends the movie in a foreign land with very few compatriots, existing in a kind of bubble wherein they learn truths about themselves away from the culture that defined them. Sofia Coppolla’s excellent Lost In Translation is a terrific example, so too is the Burt Lancaster dramedy Local Hero. In Personal Shopper, Kristen Stewart has the title job, playing Maureen, a young American woman living in Paris and working as the personal shopper to a rich and famous supermodel. Her duties almost exclusively involve picking up expensive designer clothing and jewellery for her employer’s many appearances. I really liked Maureen as a character a lot. I found her to be multi-layered and played very well by Stewart. Like many of these American abroad movies, Maureen lives alone and this solitude in a foreign land has either disquieted her or enhanced the grief she feels after the death of her twin brother Lewis, causing her to withdraw to the point where she only exists in Paris, instead of living.
The opening scene of the movie sees Maureen arriving at the large country home Lewis lived in before his untimely death from a heart attack, caused by a congenital heart defect he shared with his sister. I love this kind of character writing. There’s no real reason in the movie why Maureen should have this defect, not does it influence any of the story, but it adds depth to her. An astute viewer would realize that on a deeper level she would be limited in the choices she makes in life. Even though one is watching a character in a story, there is something to be gained in this kind of richness. Not only that, she’s a medium! And so was her brother! This opening scene was terrific, I thought, and by not unveiling the supernatural aspect later in the movie it has a grounding effect on the plot. It makes sense too – stripped of the phony kind of “supernatural” jump-scare tropes of the Blumhouse movies it treats the concept of mediums in a more mundane manner, turns it into a relatively routine process, instead of it being the only thing that defines the practitioner. I was also pleasantly surprised in the writing of Maureen that she has no idea of the who, what, or why of the spirit world, or even if the presences she experiences are even spirits in the traditional sense. A Hollywood movie about mediums Personal Shopper is not. In many ways, I was reminded of another 2017 indie superatural drama, A Ghost Story, that explores the life-interrupting effect that grief has on the living. I suppose my main criticism of this medium aspect is that I never got the sense she made a living from being a medium or actually conducting seances and the like, so maybe the actual term that should have been used was “sensitive”.
Maureen has followed her brother to Paris because of promise both twins made to each other: the one who dies first will attempt to reach out to contact the other, give them a sign of the survival of themselves after death. Maureen’s grief has been prolonged by this need for a sign. When she spends a couple of nights alone in this dark, empty mansion she hears and sees things that indicate the presence of something – but is it Lewis? This kind of ambiguity is a thread that runs through the entire movie, especially when Maureen begins to have a relationship by text when a mysterious “unknown caller” begins to send her cryptic messages. Even though the movie remains relatively low-key throughout, it is also a standout piece of character writing and acting, and soon after being drawn into this reluctant, mysterious relationship, the anonymity of these exchanges allows Maureen to act out some private desires of her own, resulting in a terrific opening and expansion of her persona.
This is truly an actor’s movie. Stewart is pretty much in every scene, and I thought she was terrific, despite a couple of small “acting moments”, that distracted me a little – but not nearly enough to lose my interest in the story. There is a small period around the midpoint where the story flagged, but it picks up quickly after that when Maureen’s life is turned upside down by a specific event, changing her status from that point forward.
Ambiguity is the central theme in this movie, both in terms of story and in stylistic aspects. I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many slow fades to black throughout a movie as I saw in Personal Shopper, but they work well as moments that darken the tone, like ink dripped into water, increasing the feeling that Maureen’s situation is becoming unchangeable, inescapable. She hates her job, and Lewis either is or is not contacting her. Her growing frustration with the latter takes its toll on her since it is the sole reason she came to live in Paris.
And this ambiguity spikes towards the end of Act 2, and then hits its peak in the very last second in the movie. In the former, something happens in a hotel that will make you question what exactly you’re seeing and what its implications are for either Maureen’s expectations, and perhaps even for Maureen herself. I was absolutely intrigued by this, and enjoyably, this event is not explained in any way by the story or characters. You could easily have taken the scene out and it changes nothing, but this is what makes great writing for me – always give the audience something to think and wonder about, no matter how small, no matter what genre. It’s something that most movies don’t even attempt, and I get frustrated by this.
The absolute ending gives a concrete answer to any questions you may have had regarding the authenticity of supernatural phenomena in this movie, but does it in such a matter of fact way without the need for jump scares or Poltergeist-like hijinks that it demands immediate acceptance of the audience. The best – and most ambiguous scene – is saved for the very last couple of seconds, and an ending that invites discussion long after the movie has ended. That is my kind of writing.
This is not a perfect movie by any stretch, but Stewart bears the entire weight of the movie on her shoulders and proves herself more than capable of raising the material to a height it might not have reached otherwise.
© Andrew Hope, 2019