Psychics, Sadness and Mystery in Assayas’ Personal Shopper

It’s no surprise that death is devastating for those in mourning. Missing loved ones who have passed on comes in many forms but most of us would confidently say that faith (or lack thereof) aside, we don’t really know what happens to our soul after the physical body ends. In Personal Shopper, we see one woman’s struggle with the death of her twin brother and her belief in the afterlife. It brings to light deeper questions about life and death staged before the backdrop of Paris, the fashion world, and its trappings.

Maureen (Kristen Stewart) works for a self-centered celebrity and socialite Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten) as a personal shopper. Her job is to find the latest and greatest in high fashion and bring it back to her famous employer since her high profile makes it impossible to shop anonymously. Maureen has also recently lost her twin brother Lewis to a heart defect she also suffers from. His surviving partner Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz) wants to sell their house, but Maureen who is a medium, insists that Lewis will send her a sign from beyond, so she spends a few nights in his crumbling house waiting for him to appear. He was a medium like her, so her determination is fueled by his once stronger psychic abilities and their vow to make contact from the other side. When she does contact the spirit world, she also receives mysterious text messages topped off with an unexpected murder that stops her in her tracks. Maureen’s quest for answers becomes more confusing, leaving her in a state of shock and floundering for answers.

Kristin Stewart as Maureen waiting for a sign.

Personal Shopper is a horror, a film noir, a psychological thriller, and a ghost story. It is all of the above and none of the above at the same time, embracing and defying genre. Director Olivier Assayas created a film that’s in a class of its own using art, history and old school paranormal beliefs with 21st century technology and lifestyles to illustrate Maureen’s search for her brother’s spirit. It’s this artistic take that kept me riveted despite the slow burn pace.

Assayas captures Maureen’s loss well, and he also conveys the loneliness of this technological age we live in with Skype and smartphones being key methods with which she communicates. Even when she is with someone physically or electronically, she is separate, guarded, or unsure; from her shopping excursions to her Skype dates with her boyfriend. The smart phone as a thing of necessity in this day and age to stay tethered to this world also becomes an agent of isolation and intense paranoia when Maureen pleads with a nameless messenger behind the texts to reveal themselves.  Assayas takes a now commonplace device and gives it a more otherworldly, sinister presence.

Personal Shopper is also a lesson in how Maureen grieves. She throws herself into her work even though she flat out hates her fashionable job, but Paris is her main connection to her dead brother so she stays there as she waits for a ghostly sign, not ready to let go.  The world of fashion is a fleeting one; rarely delving deeply into the reality around it. Her psychic abilities seem to be stunted as she moves between posh shops in London and Paris to serve Kyra in this superficial arena. It shows how she herself seems like a spirit as she is lost between real life, the supernatural, the fashion world, and her uncertainty with what she believes and how she is perceived. Her only moment of self-awareness comes when the mysterious messenger asks her to do something forbidden, and she taps all too briefly into her desires in her confused and somewhat desperate state. It’s a strange moment in the film, but it makes sense as her character searches for a right fit, so to speak, in environments that while not hostile, aren’t hospitable to her either.

The look of the film is really beautiful. Yorick Le Saux, the cinematographer for Only Lovers Left Alive, does a wonderful job capturing the contrast of the dingy streets and stark sophistication of Paris. He is skilled at making the most of each setting, representing streetscapes and boutiques in their truest and most tangible forms. For anyone that has visited the City of Lights, you’ll feel nostalgic for its frenzied energy.

My only issue lies with the text messages and some of the ensuing actions asked of Maureen. While I really enjoyed these suspenseful interludes and there is definitely a point to them, they were problematic with some details that still remain unclear when the storyline makes a sharp turn. Stewart’s stellar performance as a tortured, uncertain and lost character written for her by Assayas, evokes a surprising amount of emotion that overshadows any inconsistencies in the narrative however, as you watch this poor soul wait for her brother to tell her something, anything as proof of an afterlife.

Personal Shopper is an artistic take on a ghost story and focuses on one woman’s uncertainty when mortality comes into question. See this film for it’s beautiful photography, a haunting performance from Stewart and an interesting albeit imperfect story about grief and the afterlife.

(Previously published on Rosemary’s Pixie.)

mother! and the Art of Sacrifice

Yet another festival film has divided the masses in the way of Darren Aronofsky’s latest film Mother!  Making its rounds in Europe and playing TIFF 2017 in Toronto; and much like previous TIFF premiere The Witch from over a year ago, critics and viewers either love or hate this allegorical masterpiece that confounds the horror genre and elevates the artistic experience.

A married couple live in a secluded house in the countryside. This rambling manor is a restoration project for the young wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and a place for solitude and concentration for her writer husband (Javier Bardem). While she is his muse, he is still looking for inspiration and having difficulty putting pen to paper, but when a stream of strangers come to their door looking for a place to stay, things start to change. These guests are unwanted by the writer’s wife, disturbing her solitude and her vision for the home; yet they fuel and invigorate her husband, creating a fervour that will soon divide them in their lifelong pursuits.

Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem).
Photo credit: IMDb

When my boyfriend and I showed our tickets to one of the theatre staff, she immediately let us know that we could get a refund within the first half hour of the film. The staff member felt she had to warn us about the disturbing nature of the film, as many movie-goers thought it was a family drama because of the title. With that red flag waved before we even sat down in the theatre, I wasn’t sure what we were about to witness, but I was scared I might find something to take issue with. This apprehension also came from some earlier discussion during TIFF about the age difference between Jennifer Lawrence’s character only know as Mother, and her husband Him, played by Javier Bardem. The May/December coupling was something to think about as it mirrored the real-life relationship of Aronofsky and Lawrence, but I couldn’t condemn the film simply because of that one detail without having seen it. I tend to avoid any reviews until I’ve seen the film and written my own thoughts about it, and I made an extra effort to avoid as many articles as I could with Mother! I did see a few snippets of review headlines screaming the film’s shortcomings or brilliance in a few choice words, making me even more curious. My final verdict, although I tried in vain to find something to dislike about Mother!, is one of complete adoration for such a brilliant film.

There is so much to say about Mother! and so many layers to explore that I imagine theology, psychology, film and sociology PhD students will have at it for decades. Aronofsky himself has said in several interviews that this film is about Mother Earth and her destruction but you can see other themes based on the artist and religion.  Whether you believe the film to be about the perishing earth, art, or the Bible, there is a common thread that shows the struggle of creating and the sacrifice that the creator and those around them must endure.

*Some may find the next part of this review/analysis spoiler-filled, so reader be warned.*

As a creative person and someone who values solitude, I felt Mother’s horror as intruders destroyed her sanctuary.  Her experiences are very close to a recurring nightmare I used to have about constant, unwanted visitors, and I felt her husband’s frustration with not being able to create, desperately looking for an outlet or inspiration. When the intruders start to fuel his creativity, allowing the floodgates to open and his masterpiece to unfold, it’s a wave that many an artist or writer wants to capture and ride forever, constantly feeding the ego with praise and celebrity.

Mother and her husband are fairly archetypical in nature. The rosy-cheeked, blonde, blue-eyed representation of Mother Earth/Mary/the female side of creativity is young, vibrant and innocent, just the type of personification that is needed to feed the creativity of her older, more worldly husband. Aronofsky has said that Rosemary’s Baby was among the influences for the film, and like Rosemary Woodhouse, Mother is used for her spouse’s gain without her being in on the larger scheme of things, but here there is a cyclical feel to her life and death. She will not be forced to choose to look after her child like Rosemary, in fact, Mother is in constant opposition to what is happening around her even though she is a major part of the cycle. She is there to tend to the home while her husband creates, but her efforts will be overshadowed and thwarted by intruders. Her role is so utterly mired in the feminine and her partner so male, that the yin and yang of their relationship and power dynamics, while stereotypical, are poignant. Her desire to have children and bear fruit like Mother Earth is stunted by her husband’s own overbearing God-like desire to create and be adored, and when she does have a child, it is taken from her for his own egotistical reasons, to placate his worshipers who have supported Him in his work and who treat his writings like scriptures, confirming his role as an all-seeing, all-knowing deity.

Mother’s experience is very relatable as she struggles with her intuition. Her need to restore the house, listening to and nurturing its spirit is acknowledged but not heeded and she is placated by thin excuses or shunned for not going along with the crowd. At times her physical voice is drowned out by the chaos as her hard work is destroyed. The insecurity that comes with the terror of being completely alone in your pursuits needs a strong person to stand up for what they believe in. She does this over and over again, as she sacrifices herself not as a victim but as a martyr and saviour, only to be resurrected in this weird and crazy cycle of life.

Technically speaking, I really enjoyed the camerawork that was reminiscent of the long takes in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman and the claustrophobic close-ups and tracking shots of Mother like in Rosemary’s Baby. It gives us Mother’s perspective and we witness the action along with her. We were also in the dark with her, getting no clues as the audience, save for some biblical references like Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel (played by Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Brian and Domhnall Gleeson respectively); as well as the birth and devouring of Mother’s son seemingly symbolizing the sacrifice of Christ as one interpretation.

I must mention a wonderful surprise (at least for me!). Stephen McHattie appears as the zealot; a rabid follower of the writer’s work, stirring up the masses to worship the word of the writer. Those who know me, know I love Mr. McHattie, so to see him in such a spectacular pageant of a film made me love and respect him even more. And speaking of pageants, I had the sense that Mother! could somehow work as a stage play with the exaggerated chaotic action, and I would love to see that in the future.

I really can’t tell you how to react to Mother! only what I’ve seen and experienced as I immersed myself in this film. Yes, you can see obvious influences of the Bible, Rosemary’s Baby, Birdman (in my opinion for the cinematic style), and all the other films mentioned by Aronofsky himself, but these influences melded to create something that is unique, new and quite simply brilliant. Whether you see it as a creationist story, an 11th hour commentary on the state of the earth and environment as the director intended, a modern-day scripture about the artist ego, sacrifice and their art, there are allegories and symbolism for days in this film. It’s not to be missed.

[Previously published on Rosemary’s Pixie]