Swedish painter Hilma af Klint
Director Olivier Assayas at Cannes
PERSONAL SHOPPER B+
France Germany (105 mi) 2016 ‘Scope d: Olivier Assayas Official site
It’s important to remember that Assayas was a painter before he became a filmmaker, where the remarkable fluidity of his film style may be attributed to his ability to visualize ahead of time the exact look he wants onscreen, where a rush of images resemble an improvisatory style of painting, perhaps accentuating the spontaneity of the moment, using a contemplative, stream-of-conscious narrative that comprises a radically modernist film style, at times somber and reflective, while at other times feeling like an assault to the senses. Here he resorts to an old-fashioned, haunted house genre, conjuring up dead spirits and ghosts from the past, which at times is amusing, like an homage to Hitchcock, a filmmaker having fun and playing with the art of his craft, yet also delves into the horror genre, where fear and existential angst create an absorbing interior dread. At the center of the picture, and in nearly every shot, is the young protagonist Maureen (Kristen Stewart, who seems to inhabit the role), an American in Paris, a psychic medium who believes she is capable of communicating with a spirit world. Some in the audience will giggle, constantly whisper amongst themselves, and simply never get past this point, as they will find the premise too preposterous, too far-fetched and unbelievable, especially the use of cheesy CGI effects in an otherwise realistic film. While the film was booed at Cannes, this is largely because a prominent French filmmaker made a film starring a tabloid celebrated American actress where the predominate language spoken is English, yet others, to be sure, are among this camp of ardent disbelievers. Assayas, however, has always been on the cutting edge of new technology, prominently featuring an iPhone as a secondary character, where the narrative is advanced by rapid text conversations from someone identified as “Unknown,” which gives the film something instantly recognizable, while also adding an element of mystery and intrigue. Using a film-within-a-film device, Maureen becomes riveted by watching a documentary piece on her phone about Swedish abstract painter Hilma af Klint (1862 – 1944), (Hilma af Klint - A Pioneer of Abstraction (eng.sub) - YouTube, 22:01), who claimed to be a clairvoyant, who was told by spirit voices to paint “on the astral plane,” whose work is derived from mysticism and the awareness of higher levels of consciousness, an aspect that is currently being marginalized in an increasingly materialistic world. Af Klint is another psychic believer who conducted séances with other artists, whose occult-inspired paintings were among the first representations of abstract art, so she refused to publicly show these paintings during her lifetime, knowing they would not be understood, as they were believed to be decades before their time, released twenty years after her death, as stipulated by her will, where in an interesting parallel, the creativity behind these paintings was inspired by “unknown” forces.
Like the last Assayas film, 2014 Top Ten List #3 Clouds of Sils Maria, the director’s first collaboration with Stewart, she plays another disaffected assistant to an overbearing star. While she played a secondary role in the earlier film, here she is the centerpiece, where we see everything through her eyes. While the film is comprised with on-the-street, cinéma vérité moments of Kristen Stewart zipping around Paris and London on a moped picking out ultra chic designer outfits and Cartier jewelry for an haut couture fashion model star who is rarely ever seen, Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), whose domineering reputation precedes her, where the selfish conceits of her narcissistic boss are unnerving, making her a pain to work for, placing her in a fully subservient and demeaning role, yet the idea of having the freedom to work with designers, choosing their latest creations, and having them at your beck and call, as her boss is too busy and too recognizable to perform these duties herself, offers a kind of titillating luxury most of us will never know, flittering in and out of the high life, dropping off accessories, having access to often empty upscale apartments where she’s free to imagine herself in a parallel existence leading a life of pampered indulgence. But the film is not about class difference, though in stark contrast, Maureen runs around in jeans, T-shirts and old sweaters, instead one of the visceral thrills she gets is secretly trying on her boss’s clothes, something she’s explicitly forbidden to do, but operating completely on her own, almost never running into her boss, she sets her own boundaries. With occasional skype calls from a boyfriend abroad (Ty Olwin), who is consumed by a high tech security instillation in Oman, Maureen makes frequent visits to her sister Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz), who seems to keep her grounded. When not shopping for Kyra, she spends her free time communing with the dead, hoping for a sign from her recently deceased twin brother, Lewis, as both share the same congenital heart condition, which caused his sudden death, and both are psychic mediums, having made a pact that the first one to die would send a recognizable sign. This aspect of the film has sinister implications, especially when the wrong spirits show up, as they are often angry and incensed at finding themselves summoned by strangers, where the idea of wandering endlessly in the spirit world does not sound inviting. Because she is a medium, however, she’s able to understand these mix-ups, a skill viewers may not share, leaving them perplexed by the cinematic trickery involved, where the baffling weirdness of ghosts onscreen is still relatively shocking in arthouse cinema.
Assayas shared the Best Direction prize at Cannes with Romanian director Christian Mungiu for Graduation (Bacalaureat) (2015), two very different styles of film, yet both are eerily distinctive at tapping into modern era anxieties and discontent, where Maureen is not only trying to come to terms with her brother’s death, exposing herself to phantoms of the spirit world, but leads such a detached existence, disconnected from her own employer, always missing each other, instead leaving each other notes, rarely having any contact, she is also targeted by an unknown caller on her smartphone, all but contaminating an indispensable part of her existence, who seems intimately familiar with her every move, initially suspecting it was her brother from beyond the grave, but it leads to more menacing implications, as if someone is stalking her and watching her every move, where an unsettling relationship, of sorts, develops over a prolonged sequence of text messages that leads to a great deal of confusion and fear, feeling completely exposed, even ashamed, where there are dangerous forces on the loose. This powerful sense of emptiness and loss follows her everywhere, which may be associated with her enveloping grief, but is further exacerbated by her entry into the supernatural, where all the forces align in painting a complex portrait of contemporary unease, becoming a meditation on loss, but also jealousy, identity, and desire, where Maureen loses all sense of herself. One of the more bizarre sequences finds Maureen alone in Kyra’s apartment, as she is away on business, allowing her to try on various outfits, changing places with her employer, perhaps reminiscent of Jean Genet’s The Maids, yet the eerie music on the soundtrack is Marlene Dietrich singing a bleak Viennese folksong about how Death doesn’t differentiate, as it cuts down the rich and poor alike, Marlene Dietrich "Das Hobellied" 1952 (Feathers 2/2). - YouTube (2:02), which opens the door to darker, more ominous forces that creep ever closer, brilliantly conveyed by a series of unread texts unraveling in waves, that develop a more threatening tone with every new line, instantly filling her with dread, feeling exposed, as if she is on the precipice of the abyss. With the phone itself becoming an instrument of horror, violence ensues, though not as one might suspect, as technology is a tool that seems to have robbed our souls of greater meaning in life, leaving us even more disconnected and alone, a vulnerable and precarious position, to be sure. Caught in a labyrinth of fear, she makes her escape, scampering off to Oman, where the specifics of her detailed instructions out into the hinterlands lead her farther and farther away from any recognizable signs of civilization, where she may as well be in an altogether different universe, like a portal to the unknown (where there is probably no cellphone connection). Maureen continually places herself in haunted space, contemplating her experience afterwards, though by the end whether she is liberated or not remains an open question, yet there are inevitably lingering doubts, larger existential questions that go unanswered, but viewers are likely to be caught off-guard while the film searches for answers about the unknown mysteries of the modern world, including a driving, often irrational need to fill a void of emptiness in our human existence.