DIRECTOR OLIVIER ASSAYAS FINDS A NEW MUSE
Photo: Kristen Stewart as Maureen in ‘Personal Shopper’ Rating: R; Grade: B+
Horror, as a genre, has undergone a series of fairly rapid changes over the last decade.
Thankfully, we’ve seen a transition away from the excesses of torture porn—the final nail in that coffin may have come courtesy of the Tom Six “Human Centipede” trilogy—toward a foundation rooted in the scare factory approach of Blumhouse Productions (from franchise-building with “Paranormal Activity,” “Insidious,” and “Ouija” to partnerships with creative personalities like M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Visit” and “Split,” and Jordan Peele’s “Get Out”) on one hand and a growing collection of independent-minded filmmakers (Robert Eggers’ “The Witch,” Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook,” and Ana Lily Amirpour’s “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”) focused on fascinating character and an old-school level of suspense grounded in mythic tropes.
This re-invention or re-calibration of horror allows for the intriguing possibility of other filmmakers, from outside the core community of the faithful, to take a stab at the form, to turn down the lights and lead us around the spooky old haunts.
One such recent case is “Personal Shopper,” the new release from Parisian writer-director Olivier Assayas, known more for applying his smart stylish sensibilities to more dramatic fare (“Summer Hours”) or stories set in the behind-the-scenes world of moviemaking (“Irma Vep” and “Clouds of Sils Maria”). Yet, what Assayas seems to be attracted to is the thrilling layer underneath the surface, the tension in exchanges, and the idea that there is so much that is not known when people are thrust together.
So it is not surprising that “Personal Shopper” finds him taking that mystery to a more metaphysical place, casting Kristen Stewart (who co-starred in “Clouds of Sils Maria” and became the first American to win the French equivalent of an Academy Award for her performance) as Maureen, an American working as a personal shopper for a pampered celebrity (Nora von Waldstätten). Maureen splits her time between scouting clothes and jewelry for her charge and indulging in an obsession with her dead twin brother Louis. The pair believed they were mediums and promised that if one of them died, they would attempt to contact the survivor from the afterlife.
Much of the runtime of “Personal Shopper” involves watching and waiting for some sign from Louis, which should be tedious, especially since Assayas is not at all interested in goosing us with conventional scare tactics. While he does employ them sparingly, what he inserts in their place is a more human thriller involving someone reaching out to Maureen via text messages, someone who knows where she is at any given moment and seeks to lure her into a trap of some sort. The question, for her, is whether or not these messages are coming from Louis or some other source. But as skeptical as Maureen is (and we become, since she is our stand-in), the looming doubts certainly take on a degree of life.
Stewart builds on her effort in “Clouds of Sils Maria,” where she played a hardworking assistant to a star (Juliette Binoche) struggling with her transition into middle age. The fascinating aspect of both roles, and Stewart’s work, is that she’s playing somewhat ordinary characters, anonymous people dedicated to the service of ego-driven types, which means she spends most of the time with her head down, avoiding the spotlight. Stewart, in these roles, gets to act without any of the frills we normally associate with the task, meaning she gives the impression of simply living in these moments.
And even with the mystery and slowly escalating thrills of “Personal Shopper,” there is the sense that Maureen is merely standing in the eye of a storm front, one that is pressing in on her, tighter and tighter. She’s got no way out, so all she can do is retreat further inside herself, and Stewart captures that feeling, the knotty anxiety and the fear that, by the end, paradoxically becomes a bright and blinding light, rather than the usual darkness we might expect.
Not much happens in “Personal Shopper,” but Assayas and Stewart make sure that what does is otherworldly.