Jason reporting from NYFF on the spooky and stylish reunion between Clouds of Sils Maria's director and star...
When I first read that Olivier Assayas was making a haunted house movie starring Kristen Stewart my reaction was both "a record needle scratching to a halt sound-effect" and "a cartoon figure running through a wall only to leave a perfect cut-out of their shape in said wall." That is to say I was taken aback, but I wanted to be at that place immediately. Important Directors, those who get the word "important" capitalized, look down on genre too often. But it's almost always fascinating to see what these talents make of the well-trod constructs and conceits - how they twist and shape them to their personal auteurial demands.
And you could say ghosts hovering over sad stylish actresses has been a theme that Assayas has returned to time and again...
think upon Juliette Binoche weeping over her great losses in both Summer Hours and Clouds of Sils Maria. And then take a break, sit down for a bit, remember to breathe, because I know thinking about Juliette Binoche crying will take a lot out of you. Like the Rapture itself.
Personal Shopper just makes the ghosts literal (well metaphorical and literal, as all good ghost stories do) but no worries - the sad stylish actressing is still out in full force. Such style! Such actressing! It would appear that when Kristen Stewart disappeared into the mist in Sils Maria she merely wandered down to Paris and became a different demanding-woman's assistant. Or maybe this is an alternate dimension that she's meandered into? There's even another sequence of Stewart juggling texts and phone-calls on a train - I kept wishing we'd get a Binoche cameo to really bring it all together. (But then who goes to the movies and doesn't wish Binoche would suddenly randomly appear on the screen?)
That's not to say that Stewart's performance is a repetition of what she did (and did so well) in that previous film - well, not anymore than Kristen Stewart is always kind of "Kristen Stewart" on screen. She's not a transformative actress, it's true, but that's not meant as a knock - we go to plenty of movies to watch plenty of movie-stars be themselves, only in new exciting situations. She's our Jimmy Stewart, and there's something very similar to how Hitchcock used Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo to this - wanderers we watch wandering against a backdrop of encroaching phantom zones. And Kristen does fine (you might even call it "haunting") work here as a young woman unraveling as her grief takes spectral form around her. It's easily the sexiest, most mature performance she's given yet, even as her eyes hollow out underneath her.
And with good reason. Assayas proves himself more than capable with the genre-elements he sprinkles over the proceedings - I found the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end more than once, and there's a sequence involving an avalanche of delayed texts that's particularly inspired. I wouldn't be surprised if that idea was the lynch-pin in him wanting the make the movie., and I wouldn't be surprised if we see it stolen for a thousand inferior thrillers down the road.
In the end both the record-scratch and the cartoon-outline reactions that I had to the news of Personal Shopper proved omniscient - the film straddles a lot, neither this nor that, or maybe both that and this, and it's fascinating that way but maybe also a little bit frustrating too for those same reasons. It feels like a film that might hover and hang on though, its own kind of specter cast - it exists in its own time and its own place and I can see myself longing to find my way back to it again. I just hope I don't have to accept any phone-calls from another dimension in order to find my way back - the real horror comes from imagining all of those roaming fees!