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'Personal Shopper' resists label

It's an oddity.


MEDIUM AND MESSAGE: Kristen Stewart seeks divination from a departed twin brother in Oliver Assayas' new film, "Personal Shopper."
  • MEDIUM AND MESSAGE: Kristen Stewart seeks divination from a departed twin brother in Oliver Assayas' new film, "Personal Shopper."

In one memorable episode of "Cheers," Frasier, determined to force some literary culture upon his fellow barflies, begins reading "A Tale of Two Cities" to them. As the gang turns away from his "best of times, worst of times" recitation, clearly bored with Dickens only a few lines in, Frasier begins to improvise, adding into the mix "a bloodthirsty clown who beckoned innocent children into the sewer and swallowed them whole!" That gets their attention.

Recently, my wife suggested that we see the movie "Personal Shopper." "It stars Kristen Stewart of 'Twilight' fame," she began. "Stewart — she plays Maureen, who works in Paris as the personal shopper for a big name celebrity, going around and buying all the clothes and jewelry needed for upcoming galas and photo shoots." My eyes began to glaze over. "Oh, and Maureen is also a spiritual medium who's only staying in Paris to attempt contact with her recently departed fraternal twin brother, but she soon gets caught up in a murder investigation." That got my attention — though I suspected that she was making stuff up.

True enough, though, that plot summary does not quite prepare the viewer for the oddity that is "Personal Shopper." The film opens with Maureen spending the night in a large fixer-upper of a house, running toward every sound she hears and calling out for some kind of sign. (The scenes here are so fantastically over-miked as to put the viewer in her place, trying to distinguish between the rapping of spirits and random old-house noise.) In the morning, she reports back to three French people (are they friends? acquaintances?) that there is a presence in the home, but she cannot determine if it's her brother, Lewis. Soon, Maureen is off to work, driving her scooter through the glamorous districts of Paris, where this awkward and dour woman in a worn Izod sweater browses through the latest offerings from Chanel and Cartier on behalf of her celebrity employer, Kyra (Nora von Waldsätten), later dropping them off at Kyra's empty apartment. And then it's back to another night in that abandoned house or reading up on classical spiritualism for some guidance on communicating with the dead.

Maureen clearly does not enjoy her day job, and though the two aspects of her life presented to us seem like total contrasts — materialist pursuits used to fund her immaterial quest — they prove entirely complementary. As we follow Maureen, it quickly becomes apparent how detached her communications are from those in her sphere; how little of her life is truly unmediated. She patiently awaits messages from the other side and from Kyra, the latter either abroad or too busy to share words face-to-face. Her only contact with her boyfriend, Gary (Ty Olwin), working on contract over in Oman, is through a bad Skype connection. Later in the movie, she receives a whole string of increasingly insistent and unnerving text messages from an anonymous source — perhaps the spirit of her brother, or perhaps some stalker. In fact, so many of Maureen's encounters in this movie are indirect that, when she actually has a one-on-one conversation with someone, the moment feels filled with import.

If "Personal Shopper" fails to resolve conveniently into a pure ghost story or a psychological thriller or the triumphant tale of grief overcome, it's because the direct experience of reality is rarely so amenable to categorization, rarely so molded to our personal tastes as Frasier's bloodthirsty clowns in Revolutionary France. Like David Lynch, French writer/director Olivier Assayas plays with conventions, creating tension not just through plot developments but also by forcing us to question just what sort of movie we are watching at any given moment. Most films, like spirits from the other side, have a message to convey, but with "Personal Shopper," the medium is the message.

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