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Personal Shopper: The Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection // R // October 24, 2017
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted October 26, 2017 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Olivier Assayas seems to have discovered a new muse in Kristen Stewart, an actress whose specific sort of grim, troubled dramatic aura struggled over the years under the weight of awkward Hollywood outings, from the cumbersome reimagining of Snow White to, well, y'know … Twilight. That bad rap has gradually dissipated as she's transitioned to reputable indie projects, filling out roles that range from a Guantanamo Bay soldier to a farmland law-class instructor, but she hasn't yet landed that crucial leading role that'll completely distract from her past foibles. Perhaps this will eventually happen under the guidance of Assayas' intuitive and layered filmmaking, but his first film with her in a leading role is unable to do so. Despite a steadfast and raw performance from Stewart, Personal Shopper can't figure out what kind of character study it wants to become, leaving one waiting for the true spirit of the film to arrive amid a hodgepodge of grief, temptation, and absorption with the supernatural.

Assayas opens the film with Maureen (Stewart) feeling out the paranormal presence within a dim, creaky house, positioning herself as a medium between this world and the afterlife. She hopes for a sign from her twin brother, who recently died of a genetic defect and who could also interact with spirits, going so far as to stall her plans to leave Paris until she makes tangible contact with him. To afford Parisian life, Maureen serves as a personal shopper and quasi-stylist for a high-profile celebrity, sometimes purchasing clothing for her to wear in public and other times merely "renting" the items. Being that she's a maddening woman to work for who imposes rules upon her shopper and skirts deadlines for returning items, it's not a great career for Maureen. The complications of her layers of communication merge when she receives mysterious messages from an "unknown" sender, forcing her to decode what's real and what's from beyond the pale.

Maybe it seems like typecasting to view spiritual mediums as more casual bohemian types unconcerned with the material things of this world, but Maureen's soulful angst and the contemplation involved with being at least partially attuned to the spirit world clash with the superficiality of shopping for and dressing someone else. Sure, communing with the dead doesn't pay the bills very well unless it's from an entrepreneur who aggressively publicizes themselves, yet there's a strong disconnect between what Maureen divulges about her comprehension of the paranormal and her high-dollar acquisitions at local boutiques. This happens so noticeably that they almost seem like two versions of the same person, two entirely different examinations of the context impacting their lives instead of a cohesive portrait of someone struggling to juggle both realms of an existence. Assayas may have intent there, depicting the true Maureen and the false version of herself she's created to sustain her existence in Paris; if that's the case, the disparity between the two backfires on his intentions, lacking focus instead of emphasizing duality.

Little of this has to do with Kristen Stewart's performance in Personal Shopper, who projects the same type of enthralling melancholy attitude upon both sides of Maureen, enhanced by her signature narrow-eyed gazes and distinctive body movement that shifts from bold assertiveness to recessive discomfort. What could be a tremendous medium for exploring the depths of Stewart's capabilities inside the skin of an overburdened lead character instead struggles to preserve the illusion that she is, in fact, the same person throughout. Profoundness gets drawn out of Stewart when Maureen interacts with the spirit realm in scenes resembling the moving parts of a supernatural thriller, but then shortly after she's scooted into the position of buying thousand-dollar garments and resisting the urge to try them on, stitching together oddly cold perspectives on the realistic minutiae of her diminishing stability in everyday activities. Stewart conveys the progression of her character even when Assayas' script doesn't possess enough material to do the same with her daily routine.

A big source of frustration with Personal Shopper comes in a drawn-out sequence where Maureen responds to message after message on her cellphone, all while she's traveling via train between shopping destinations. Beyond the peculiarities of why she's indulging the conversation in the first place, and continues to indulge it, this amounts to an exceedingly bothersome cinematic experience on the surface that hinges on seemingly -- and, soon after, deliberately -- out-of-character actions from Maureen, regardless of her supernatural perception. Dramatic momentum gets lost in this expansive text conversation, which spills over into the remainder of the film's developments and overshadows whatever deeper intentions Assayas yearned to achieve with Maureen's grasp on the death of her brother. Sure, an air of ambiguity hangs over this dialogue with an "unknown" participant and the specific knowledge that they possess, but the contents of the texts themselves gradually undermine the mystique by promptly narrowing the possibilities of who or what might be on the other end.

Maureen's paranormal waiting game and the pressures and taboos of her unrewarding job initially appear as if they'll remain the cerebral stimuli of Personal Shopper, but Olivier Assayas isn't content with letting these elements of psychological suspense play out on their own terms. His film, whose two sides felt like mixing water and oil at many points, eventually transforms into something else entirely that doesn't play out like a rational extension of what comes before it, nor like something that those invested in a low-key supernatural drama would anticipate; those who saw the abrupt macabre direction taken by the tone of Clouds of Sils Maria might not be that surprised. Impacted by another of Assayas' fade-to-black evasions of key details, it's tough to know what to make of Personal Shopper's viewpoint on communicating with the dead and moving on after tragedy, especially when it builds toward a conclusion that's dependent on esoteric vagueness and engineered for interpretation. Whether Maureen sees dead people or not matters less without a sturdier grip on who she really is.

The Blu-ray:

Personal Shopper materializes onto Blu-ray as an entry into The Criterion Collection, spine #899. On the outside and the inside, it's standard operating procedure for the boutique label, sporting minimalist artwork featuring Kristen Stewart in scenes from the film. A Booklet has been included which discusses the transfer, production credits for the set, and an essay: "Freedom 2016" by Glenn Kenny.

Video and Audio:

Regardless of whether his work jibes with someone or not, it's hard not to be absorbed with the visual language that Olivier Assayas creates with his cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, where a chilly color palette and complex shadows offer a stark realistic lens into the tone of his sequences. Personal Shopper largely operates in a similar fashion to their prior works, where a 2.40:1-framed, 1080p AVC transfer scanned from the original 35mm negative explores many different interiors of varying degrees of dim lighting, relishing shadows and the subtle warmth of skin tones that peak through the blue-dominant palette. Whether it's the cramped space of a train or the semi-spacious layout of a ritzy apartment, these properties are dazzlingly rendered by Criterion's transfer, grasping at subtle warmth where necessary and preserving intricate details in sequined garments and scratched-up wood alike. What takes the transfer to another level comes in the challenge it shoulders with even darker sequences at the focal "haunted" house, to which shadows are nuanced, rich, and constantly aware of details through the disc's impeccable contrast balance. A few shadows are grayer and flatter at times, but it's a gorgeous transfer.

General steadiness and the availability to emphasize faint details in the surrounding environment are paramount in this DTS-HD Master Audio track, beyond the dialogue, of course. From the rush of Parisian traffic and wobbly train effects to the thumping of heavy objects in a big house and the unsettling noises of rushing water and creaking pipes, there's plenty of dimensionality in the surround design to create a quality immersive atmosphere, properly balanced and consistent in the rear channels. Subtler thumps of high-heel shoes, the jingle of jewelry and the shattering of glass test midrange and higher-end clarity, which are impeccably natural and crisp wherever necessary. Dialogue is flawless: the alto tempo of Kristen Stewart's verbal registry is in constant contact with both higher-end and faint midrange resonance, while those with thick French accents never struggle with audibility issues. Personal Shopper perfectly captures every ounce of dialogue, the natural cosmopolitan atmosphere and eeriness of an empty house with spirits in it; no more could be asked of it, really. English subtitles are available.

Special Features:

Olivier Assayas (16:56, 16x9 HD) sits down for an interview freshly recorded for The Criterion Collection just a few short months prior to the release of this Blu-ray. Interspersed between relevant clips from the film, the director explores the conception of the film and confirms the suspicions one might have about how the dual sides of Maureen came to be, chatting about his initial grasp on the character and (much) later implementing his long-held desire to make a "genre film" to said character. He also delves into the complexities of her character, emphasizing the purpose behind the uncertainty around the characters, as well as how technology plays into the film's rhythm and how this can be viewed as something of a companion piece to Clouds of Sils Maria.

The other substantive extras comes in a lengthy Cannes Film Festival Press Conference, 2016 (45:33, 16x9 HD), which functions similarly to a Q&A about the film's content involving Assayas, Kristen Stewart, and others from the cast. Flipping between spoken English and English-translation voiceover by translators, the topics tend to have a little overlap and dance around similar questions, but it gives Assayas and Stewart ample opportunities to formulate genuine answers; there's even a point where Stewart tackles a labored connection between the paranormal elements of this film with the Twilight franchise. The most intriguing part of the conference comes at the beginning, though, where Assayas abruptly discusses some interesting truths to interpreting the film's ending.

There's also a Trailer (2:02, 16x9 HD).

Final Thoughts:

Olivier Assayas' work always provides stimulating concepts and emotions to decipher through the director's methodical, complex brand of storytelling, yet he takes those talents somewhere unusual with Personal Shopper. With Kristen Stewart in the lead, the film explores what a supernatural genre pic looks like through the auteur's eyes, galvanized by the emotional strain of grief and the hollow frustrations of sustaining a celebrity's lifestyle. Instead of achieving a genuine blend, however, Personal Shopper merely straps together two sides of the main character, Maureen -- her day-to-day style shopping for her employer and her communications with the supernatural -- without ensuring that they come across as the actions and responses of a single, sincere character. The poignancy of being a spiritual medium and the artifice of dressing a celebrity clash with one another in Personal Shopper, and while Stewart's performance is nuanced and absorbing from scene to scene, she can't reconcile the film's conceptual disagreements and cryptic aims later on. The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray looks and sounds flawless, and it comes with a solid quarter-hour interview and Q&A press conference from Cannes, but the oblique nature of the film and its patches of drawn-out monotony are what keep em from suggesting more than a Rental for this one.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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