Monday, March 06, 2017

Personal Shopper: Assayas Re-Teams with Stewart

For reasons both personal and political, a young American woman in Paris is drawn to the work of Hilma af Klint. Considered the one of the earliest abstract artists, af Klint claimed the geometric shapes she painted were transmitted directly to her hand by the spirit world. Given the recent increase in critical interest, the Moderna Museet probably now regrets turning down the proposed gift of her entire body of work in 1970. Frankly, it might also take a while for audiences and critics to catch up with Olivier Assayas’s latest genre-defying release, which features af Klint’s work prominently. It even stars Kristen Stewart, but it is lightyears more refined than the Twilight franchise. Ghosts are a serious subject, but much about their nature is open to interpretation in Assayas’s Personal Shopper (trailer here), opening this Friday in New York.

Maureen Cartwright lives a solitary existence. She works as a personal shopper for a vain, charity ball-attending celebrity, whom she rarely sees. Most of her instructions come from terse notes left in the jet-setter’s usually un-lived-in Parisian apartment. She is also still mourning the loss of her twin brother Lewis from the genetic heart defect they both shared. At least her soulless celebrity schlepping allows her time to moonlight as a medium.

She also shared with Lewis a "sensitivity" to the spirit world. At one point, they made a pact agreeing the first to die would send back signs to the surviving sibling from wherever. As a result, a freelance assignment to investigate a house associated with Lewis for lingering spirits holds deeply personal implications for Cartwright.

Assayas begins the film with Cartwright arriving to conduct her night-long “séance” and it just might be the most riveting “cold open” you will ever see. He makes it apparent there is some sort of entity hovering just outside Cartwright’s field of vision, but not that of the audience. When things do go bump in the night, it is not clear whether it is her brother attempting to communicate or a malicious spirit trying to deceive her. As a result, Shopper easily boasts some of the most breathlessly tense scenes you will find in a film not intended as a horror movie, per se. The unsettling ambiguity continues when Cartwright starts receiving ominous messages from a mystery texter. Again, it is not clear whether they are coming from a benign or malignant spirit, or perhaps a more terrestrial (and physically dangerous) source.

There are no easy answers in Shopper, which is likely to frustrate Twilight fans, but it will leave smarter genre viewers intrigued to the point of obsession. Assayas deliberately gives us scenes that support multiple conclusions, only to contradict them shortly thereafter. Yet, it never feels like he is deliberately toying with viewers. In fact, every frame of the film feels like it fits logically and organically into the whole.

Arguably, Stewart is not stretching so much from the personal assistant she played (so very well) in Assayas’s masterful Clouds of Sils Maria, but she still deserves credit for such an open and vulnerable portrait of spiritual and social alienation. Just as Assayas never wastes a shot, Stewart uses every second to express the doubts and anxieties plaguing Cartwright.

Technically, Stewart valiantly carries Shopper, appearing in nearly every frame of film, often without the benefit of another actor to play off. Yet, it rarely feels like she is “alone,” thanks to Assayas’s remarkable powers of suggestion. It is a masterful example of how subtle elements can be combined to ratchet up suspense. Without question, it represents some of the best work yet from both Assayas and Stewart, his current diva-of-choice. Very highly recommended for fans of ambitious genre cinema, Personal Shopper opens this Friday (3/10) in New York, at the IFC Center.