Thursday, March 16, 2017

Ghost in the Cell: PERSONAL SHOPPER

Personal Shopper, the latest beguiling film from French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, is a beautifully unsettled and unresolved picture. It’s another movie about a personal assistant to the stars, following his enigmatic Clouds of Sils Maria, in which Kristen Stewart played an aide to a famous actress spending time in an isolated Swiss village. Shopper reunites him with Stewart, who here takes center stage in another of her brilliantly low-key naturalistic acting efforts. She always seems so comfortable on screen that some mistake it for lack of craft instead of total command of her instrument. Every shrug, every nervous tick, every hunched posture is perfectly calibrated to feel totally at ease. In this film, which slowly reveals itself to be a combination character study, murder mystery, stalker thriller, and ghost story, she is most acutely living in a placid horror movie about the gig economy. Stewart plays a talented young woman whose entire existence is contingent. She lives in Paris paycheck to paycheck, buying fancy clothes for a distant celebrity whom she barely sees. She only has this job because of tenuous personal connections, luck, and good networking. When we hear she has a heart condition that could kill her at any moment and, indeed, was the very same affliction that killed her twin brother in the recent past, it’s hardly a surprise. It adds to the impression that her roots are shallow, her long-term security tremendously unsettled. 

Assayas masterfully manipulates this mood of unease radiating off the character’s cool exterior, capturing in cold yet soulful portraiture the contours of Stewart’s performance. She moves gracefully through her routine, but with fretful doubts creeping in on the sides. She juggles tasks and messages, puttering around Paris on a moped, lost in her own thoughts between stops. She tries on sexy clothes from her glamorous boss’s wardrobe, strutting confidently, privately. She hunches over her phone, biting her lip as she waits for the agonizing suspense of modern day communication – the animated ellipses denoting the possibility of a response – to resolve itself. These routines are heightened with the weight of the afterlife. She is mourning her twin, true, but she also feels a spiritual connection to the other side. Her brother was a medium. She admits to having this power, too. And yet she has doubts. The twins made a pact that whichever of them died first would send the other a message from beyond. And so she waits, like the ellipses awaiting its resolution, like messages sliding ominously in after a long signal-free train ride. That’s the most haunting scene; others involve a montage of automatic doors opening for no apparent reason, or a mug sliding off a counter. Even then, this is a movie of frozen glamor, with Parisian sights and high-class fashion navigated by a woman whose access to them remains tenuous, and with the delights of the living slim comfort when sitting on the edge of potential violence – as the movie slowly intrudes implications of a dangerous stalker – and a constant grief-numbed depression reminding of death. It attains its power by holding on Stewart’s face, culminating in a long take watching her face for clues. Assayas has made a film carefully attuned to this feeling, with a mega-watt star performance perfectly calibrated to a chilled blue glow.

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