Kristen Stewart & director Olivier Assayas symbiotically create an introspective narrative in ‘PERSONAL SHOPPER’

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Director Olivier Assayas’ PERSONAL SHOPPER tells the tale of a twenty-something woman, Maureen (Kristen Stewart), adrift on a sea of emotion after the recent tragic loss of her twin brother. She’s stuck in a hellish job as a personal shopper to a nightmare of a boss and she’s almost completely lost her identity. The soul-stirring, exhilarating and ambitious drama absolutely nails the grieving process whilst spinning its riveting yarn. Murder, couture and a ghost barfing ectoplasm are also part of this film’s fabric.

The process of bringing the character of Maureen to life started with a single image in the affable director’s head. Speaking at the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, Assayas said,

I had this image of this really lonely girl in Paris trying to find some consolation in her inner space, doing a job that she dislikes in the fashion industry. [She’s] someone who works in the superficial and that’s very frustrating. It doesn’t give her satisfaction. [She] finds protection in art, in her own imagination and somehow the tension between the two sides of her became accentuated in my process of writing the story. All of a sudden, it became someone who was in this ultra-alienating job, dressing someone else and trying to connect that has to do with another dimension. Ultimately, it has to do with connecting with her own subconscious.

Stewart was challenged to breathe life into this broken person, because it was such a different place to start building the character from. She stated,

It’s a strange place to start with someone too because usually this person would pre-exist you and you need to substantiate them with every answer to every question. ‘Where are they from? Who are they? What are they into? What are their hopes and dreams?’ But this person starts off so utterly fragmented that the inexplicable definition of reality doesn’t allow her to exist: If I can’t define existence, then who am I? For me, preparing this was really more just about being willing to be present in something that you cannot actually remotely define. She would love to be present and interact with people and find connections that would feel comforting but she doesn’t exist, therefore, how could she? It’s about somebody who goes through a very traumatic even like loss – traumatic events are catalysts for existential fuckin’ crisis.

Assayas relished dropping his audience into a life where we discover who this person is at the same time as the character herself.

What was important for me – what was the key for the film – was pretty much what was the first scene of the film. I like the idea that all of a sudden we’re just thrown in this story and we don’t know who that character is. She’s in that strange house and strange space and she is trying to get in touch with something that’s beyond her – like we all do in a certain way. I like the idea not knowing a thing about her. We don’t know where we are, we don’t know who she is, we don’t know what this is all about, but we are with her. We become her. We are there walking in the dark with her. A lot of what the film is about stemmed from there.

PERSONAL SHOPPER blends elements of De Palma-esque suspense, supernatural creeps and introspective profundity in with the character-driven dramatics. Assayas has always been influenced by genre filmmaking – and how most of those filmmakers combine genres.

When I started making films, the films I admired were David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Dario Argento. Those movies somehow deal with something that can be deeper in terms of understanding human beings. There’s something that’s deeper than psychology because it’s physical. It physically connects with the audience. There’s something that’s extremely profound. It’s not like I’m saying I admire guys who do horror movies – I admire guys who deal with complex issues through that medium for the depth of it. It always makes me want to use those elements.

In both CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA, the pair’s previous film together, and PERSONAL SHOPPER, Stewart plays someone with another job not very visible in the Hollywood industry – an assistant to an actress. If there’s an throughline there, it’s only a superficial one. Stewart contemplatively stated,

I guess from an outsider’s perspective, I could intellectually assess them and be like, ‘These are similarities. This came first and maybe this affected that…’, but the process of making these movies, they had fucking nothing to do with one another whatsoever. But maybe in conceptualizing them, it’s a different story.

Assayas jumped in, saying,

Those two films have completely different dynamics in a sense that one is based on a relationship between two women. The dynamics are defined by how things function between Juliette [Binoche] and Kristen. And there’s some kind of energy that has to do with comedy – it’s both a movie that’s a serious subject, about aging, but it’s also a comedy. [PERSONAL SHOPPER] is not a comedy. It’s a movie about mourning and how we deal with death. It’s more about Kristen and Kristen. Kristen trying to struggle with something inside herself. The logic of the film is radically different.

And that genre mash-up of sorts that Assayas does so pitch-perfectly with PERSONAL SHOPPER only serves to emphasize the narrative themes.

It’s less about European versus American films. It’s more that has something to do with American identity which is so manikin in worldview where what is visible is good and what is invisible is evil – evil is lurking there. Whereas, if we’re discussing visible and invisible, visible might be more evil than what is invisible – it’s further inside us and, in many ways, more precious.

What makes their second collaboration so special is the artistic pair’s ability to be connected on the same enlightened wavelength. This was best demonstrated when Stewart received her script, which was missing the last line. She elucidated,

The end was roughly translated because he wrote it in French and it was translated and sent to me. The last line didn’t make sense. I didn’t know that line was coming, but [he] was waiting for that line to crystallize in some way. And it wasn’t happening and wasn’t happening. I thought I was being tricked, or that I was stupid and didn’t understand. I knew what it should be and I knew that I understood my relationship with the movie. In that moment, I was like, ‘I get it. I can answer this question.’ I was like, ‘I’m telling you, I know.’ He was like, ‘Okay. Great! Then just do that.’ I was like, ‘You don’t want to hear it?!’ Because I’m an over-sharer – I wanna talk about everything. He was like, ‘No, no, no. Just do it.’ And that scene was coming weeks and weeks later. But that means we were on the same page as of what this movie was about. He was like, ‘We don’t have to be on the same page – we just need to be asking the same question.’

PERSONAL SHOPPER opens on March 10.

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Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.