Reach Out And Touch Cloth: Personal Shopper Reviewed

Yasmeen Khan reviews Olivier Assayas' follow up to The Clouds Of Sils Maria, the ghost story Personal Shopper, in cinemas today.

Olivier Assayas’ new film, Personal Shopper, feels like a follow up to his gorgeous, brooding 2014 drama Clouds Of Sils Maria in many ways. It feels, in fact, like a new meditation on the same themes, a reinterpretation and reshuffling of familiar ideas. Kristen Stewart once again plays a personal assistant to a famous, powerful woman; once again, she travels by train between various glamorous European destinations, carrying out her duties; once again, her coolly efficient exterior is revealed to be fragile, concealing a troubled, fascinating inner world. Once again, Assayas builds a world around the ghosts of the past, ruminating on their psychological power over his characters. And once again, Kristen Stewart gives an exceptional, luminous performance.

This time, the personal assistant is called Maureen. Based in Paris, she spends most of her time riding her motor scooter between various fashion houses and high-end jewellers, selecting objects for her boss Kyra (Nora Von Waltstätten) to wear. It’s never clear what her boss does, exactly. he’s someone who appears in public and gets photographed, she has a lot of money and she doesn’t let Maureen try on the clothes she spends it on. Maureen is coolly assertive, but determinedly unfashionable, soft in sloppy jumpers and jeans, in strict contrast to the plastic, glossy sheen of the shops she visits. The camera finds fascination in the banal details, the shiny bags and the tissue paper, the heavy hinges of the satin-lined jewellery cases – these are what add weight and substance to the narrative.

Maureen’s relationship with Kyra is thoroughly dysfunctional. They barely ever see each other, communicating by notes and texts, but their dynamic is a vast presence in Maureen’s life, affecting everything else she does. The similarity of the roles does invite comparison to the relationship between Valentine, Stewart’s character in Clouds Of Sils Maria, and her boss Maria (Juliette Binoche). Valentine and Maria, by contrast to Maureen and Kyra, spend a lot of time together. Valentine helps Maria rehearse lines for the play she’s performing in, taking the part of Sigrid, the girl that Maria played in her youth – Maria is set to play Sigrid’s older lover, Helena, this time around. As Clouds unfolds, the border between what’s just rehearsal and what’s real feeling is gradually eroded, becomes blurry, and the relationship between star and assistant dissolves. Valentine’s rehearsal is not just of the role of Sigrid but that of the younger Maria, and Maria’s reaction to having this part of her identity tried on for size is the driving force of the film.

And it’s this unequal dynamic of impersonation that’s reimagined in Personal Shopper, as Maureen disregards Kyra’s instructions and tries on her clothes and shoes, rehearsing Kyra’s role in society and assuming a sexuality that depends on her designer accessories. The insecurities of both Kyra and Maria are shored up by expensive clothes, public recognition and the cool competence of the assistant that keeps to her place, and both films are interested in what happens when this relationship begins to fail her.

Personal Shopper is also a proper, haunted-house ghost story. Maureen’s a medium, on the side, and one of the other things she’s doing in Paris is looking for a ghost of her own in a friend’s beautiful mansion. It’s a perfect horror-film house, large, elegant and empty, and entirely in contrast to the many other places Maureen inhabits. The refined world of the shopper is vulnerable, its bright light giving way to rainy shadows as soon as Maureen’s by herself.

Combining the very disparate worlds of medium and personal shopper only works, perhaps, because the film’s mostly set in Paris. It’s the ideal backdrop for both moods, the shadowed, old, unsafe world of the haunted house and the bright, bored lights of the high-end designer shops. Even so, all these elements almost don’t work together, but Stewart’s phenomenal skill as an actor and Assayas’ assured direction manage to bind them just enough to create a restless tension, a sense of two worlds rubbing together and finding this story weaving between the cracks in their edges. Eventually, the menace will bleed through, is the promise.

As in most good ghost stories, there’s a keenly-felt connection with the past; one of the most effective ways the film builds its narrative is through Maureen’s investigation of the Swedish abstract painter and medium, Hilma Af Klint, who developed her visual language as a way to express spiritualist ideas. Klint was influenced by the philosophical ideas of the Victorian theosophists, whose theories imposed an intellectual, mystical direction on a spiritualism that was rather materialist and scientifically orientated. Having these kinds of investigations underpinning the story adds a general sense of intellectual depth, of course, but there’s more to it than that; there’s a rigour in the way the themes of the film reflect the ideas Maureen’s investigating. Maureen’s life revolves around materials, in the sense of objects, but she’s also wrapped up in attempts to contact the spirit world, and to understand it though her own art.

There’s lots more layers to Maureen, and a lot more mystery to uncover in this film. Again, it could almost be too much, but it’s thanks to Kristen Stewart’s immense ability and fascinating presence that everything about Maureen’s life makes sense. Her manner is nervy, but capable; she doesn’t exude a showy confidence in the high-fashion world, but instead a low-key competence that’s much more authoritative, and that also allows her private troubles and insecurities to be totally believable. It’s an incredibly assured, impressive performance.

Personal Shopper is, in many ways, an odd melange of ideas with a rather unconventional narrative style. At times, it’s terrifying, but at others, it steps away from tension with a deliberate detachment. Essentially, it goes back over a lot of the thematic ground of Clouds of Sils Maria, but reaches for a quieter kind of emotional wonder than Clouds does. Dispassionate as it is, though, it’s never less than gripping.

Personal Shopper is in cinemas from today

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