Saturday, March 11, 2017

KRISTEN STEWART TRIES ON AN ARTHOUSE THRILLER AND IT FITS HER PERFECTLY

Original caricature by Jeff York of Kristen Stewart in PERSONAL SHOPPER (copyright 2017)

The audacity of PERSONAL SHOPPER announces itself in the very first scene. Maureen (Kristen Stewart) enters an abandoned old house in the Parisian countryside and attempts to contact the ghost of her deceased twin. He used to be a medium, and she dabbles in such hobbies as well, plus her sibling promised her he’d give her some sign from the other side within three months of his passing. Maureen goes about looking for him, opening various doors and windows in the home he used to reside in, calling out his name. Audaciously, the scene goes on and on, almost interminably, until after what feels like an eternity, there is the suggestion of a vague mist convalescing above her. But it peters out and the scene seemingly doesn't come to much. Ah, but it does. And that is what makes this strange and prolonged scene so remarkable and the film so fascinating. It is a scene about time and waiting, perfectly announcing the theme of the story and its central character.

To many in the audience I watched it with at an advanced screening this past Monday night, the scene seemed to play almost as an editing mistake, or the sign of an inept filmmaker who lost control of pacing in his very first scene, but that's not true in the least. Writer/director Olivier Assayas was not being absurdly self-indulgent here. Instead, he was merely illustrating the passage of time and how it frustrates Maureen. His scene is actually creating vivid empathy for his film's central character as time eludes her and may even be laughing in her face. 

Maureen felt that nothing came from her efforts there and the same could be said about most of the things she experienced in the rest of her life too. The opening sets up her existential crisis. She doesn’t know where she fits in the world or exactly what she wants from it. Thus, she's marking time, and is lost or bored. She can't conjure her brother's ghost any more than she can conjure an ideal life for herself. 

Kristen Stewart plays Maureen, trying on her client's clothes in PERSONAL SHOPPER.
Rarely do movies with auspices of horror traffic in such themes as existentialism and moral decay, but this one does. It has been sold as a psychosexual thriller too in some circles, and it certainly ticks many of both those genre boxes, but this is more than just a sum of those parts. This is a coming-of-age saga combined with a ghost story, as well as a searing indictment of celebrity culture. It's hard to simply pin down, and much of its tone veers from scene to scene, but what Assayas is telling us is a story about demons. The personal kind, as well as the supernatural kind - they're haunting Maureen. And lingering far beyond her comfort. That's what is the linkage in this multi-tiered film. Some may find that too ambitious, and at Cannes some booed Assayas' audaciousness. Still, he was awarded the festival's best director prize, so he had many more fans than detractors. But complicated art isn't always embraced by all. 

Just as audacious as Assayas' storytelling and shifts in genres and tone throughout is the commitment of his star Kristen Stewart. She has been incredibly forthright and courageous in the projects she's taken on, and in choosing this one she showed a bravery that most actors simply wouldn't have. It's great that she did as she gives a wonderful performance and is clearly becoming one of our best working actresses today. 

Her acclaimed path started with the hit thriller PANIC ROOM back in 2002 where she starred as Jodie Foster's daughter in David Fincher's tightly wound puzzle piece. From there, she grew into a beautiful woman and achieved worldwide acclaim playing Bella in the spectacularly successful TWILIGHT franchise. In those films, she brought a sullen intensity to the romantic horror yarn, seeming to suggest that her character's inner angst was as ripe a battlefield as the one being fought over by vampires and werewolves. To me, her Bella never seemed to wholly buy into the vampire world despite all the efforts of "Team Edward." Maybe she was winking to the audience that it was hokum, but no matter, better things awaited her.  Since then, her fame and fortune have allowed her to be very particular with the projects she chooses and she has, by and large, chosen spectacularly. She's wholly rejected blockbusters and franchises, instead preferring to make movies that contain much more meaning. She's done significant work on the arthouse side of cinema for the past few years now, and has enjoyed being employed by the likes of Woody Allen and Ang Lee. She even won the Cesar, France's Academy Award for Best Actress, in 2014 for her role in Assayas' CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA.

Stewart's careful career choices suggest a definitive theme involving characters who are fraught with inner turmoil. Once again, as Maureen, she has found a character that spends most of her arc battling within herself. She is stuck in a world that she's not sure how to get out of, that of a personal shopper to a snooty, rich French model named Kyra. In the story, Maureen often slanders the world of fashion and the silly need to show off the right glamorous look for this event and that, but she's surprisingly good at her job of loathing her client. The tasks may go completely against her Emo girl aesthetic, but she's superb at getting the right outfits for her demanding "monster" of a client, as she's fond of referring to her as.  

Kristen Stewart as Maureen, dressed down, in PERSONAL SHOPPER.
Maureen is shrewd beyond her years as she navigates and negotiates her way through haughty clerks and fashionistas, as well as the winding Paris streets she travels from store to store on her moped. She has great taste, a keen eye, and even an ability to predict what her moody client will relish or find disagreeable. But why does she stay working for such a monster? Here, Assayas connects his disparate tiers into one. Maureen is surrounded by monsters, and ironically, they're really all of her own doing. She could walk away from such that she despises, but she doesn't. 

And as the story goes on, Maureen will brush up against a lot of other monsters too. She returns to that same old house to try to contact her dead twin again, but instead arouses a different spirit, one that is vicious and bullying. The monstrous visage howls at her, chasing her around the place, and clawing at a drawing she was doodling. The ghost then pins Maureen against the wall, and as she  cowers, the spook lingers. 

This is where Assayas frames his best shot in the film. He shows just the feet of the specter entering and hovering over her in the scene. Maureen doesn't see it, but we do. It's a stunning CGI effect, one equal to that in tent poles, and it in itself is particularly audacious for such a modest arthouse effort. Especially chilling is the ghost's parting shot as the apparition vomits ectoplasm above Maureen's head. The ghost finally leaves her, but the lingering of other monsters will continue to plague Maureen's days and nights.

The third monster that appears in the film is a stranger who suddenly starts texting Maureen. While making a day trip to London to procure a special outfit for Kyra, Maureen starts getting anonymous texts on her cell from someone who knows an awful lot about her. Is it a friend, a secret admirer, or a deranged stalker? Could it be the fashion reporter she met who's having an affair with Kyra? Or is it possible that it's her dead brother, and this is the ersatz way he's chosen to communicate with her? Maybe it's all just Maureen's inner monologue, part of her ongoing battle within herself to sort out her life. Part of the fun of the movie is that it doesn't tell us who it is for a long, long time. Again, there's audaciousness in refusing to spoon feed the audience. 

It is also quite audacious to have such a scene as this introductory texting one with the stranger go on for a good 15 minutes. It's really only Stewart onscreen the whole time. Her smart phone is virtually her only costar for it! It's the sign of a great actress if she can hold the audience in the palm of her hand while so little is visually occurring onscreen, and Stewart does just that. And of course, it's another demonstration of Assayas using real time to show how much of it Maureen is wasting. 

He also ratchets up the tension exquisitely once Maureen arrives in London and exits the train. She's constantly looking over her shoulder while shopping for Kyra, trying to see if someone is following her. She starts to worry that her life may be in danger, and we in the audience are searching for him too. The scene plays like modern day Hitchcock in its cool terror. It's probably one of the most prominent reasons Assayas won that directing award at Cannes last May. 

Filmmaker Olivier Assayas on location shooting PERSONAL SHOPPER.
Assayas sympathizes with Maureen, as does Stewart, but they both indict her for her continuing inability to seize proper control of her life as well. The truth is, Maureen's a hypocrite. Sure, she cultivates an anti-fashion vibe, and a painfully self-conscious one at that as she chooses for herself a wardrobe consisting mostly of shapeless sweaters and boyish jeans, but the little girl inside can’t help but be drawn to playing dress up within the artifice of the fashion world. She secretly tries on Kyra's pricey shoes and cozies up in her chic frocks while her boss is away. She tries things on and marvels at how elegant they make her feel, as well as how she can so easily fit into the same clothes as her supermodel client. Maureen may think she loathes that world of appearances and glamour, but she certainly enjoys giving into it at every turn. 

Why, at one point in the story Maureen even settles down on Kyra's bed in one of her gowns to masturbate to an intense orgasm. Is Maureen's euphoric release due to a deep sense of frustration in her life and a need to expunge some of the pain? Or is it perhaps a display of how she is living out the fantasy of herself being such a celebrated and special person like her client? The film keeps the answers hidden there too, but the scene shows once again that Maureen is an utter contradiction. She continually slams her "monster" of a boss, yet Maureen can't help but wallow in the model's sumptuous lifestyle.  

Maureen is hypocritical elsewhere too. One moment she’s a committed medium, the next she's belittling such work and expressing regret at frittering away her time obsessing over her dead brother. She also fancies herself an independent woman who can coolly reject her boyfriend's generous and loving invitation to travel with him to exotic locations, but then has no problem turning around and letting herself fall victim to a taunting, texting cyber-stalker. 

As the film reaches its final reel, Maureen makes some truly heinous decisions and her secret stalker's threats manifest. Without giving anything else away, let me just say that in the last 15 minutes Maureen must work to unravel a murder mystery, and Assayas' film enlists yet another genre of film. It's audacious and shocking again, and another example of the stunning filmmaking at play here.


At the end of it all, the problem with Maureen is that despite her efforts to find a meaningful existence, she's not all that different from the state of her brother. She finds herself in a veritable death spiral,  continually engaging in that which is killing her, from her soul-crushing job, to smoking cigarettes, to rubbing up against wayward ghosts and guys who want to do her harm. Maureen is really shopping for herself here, but tragically doesn't like much of anything she's tried on. 

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