Review by Ken Burke
Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas)
A young woman in Paris (working as a personal assistant to a self-centered fashion model) has recently lost her twin brother to heart failure (a possible problem for her too), tries to use her paranormal sensitivities to contact him while she's receiving mysterious messages on her phone leaving her confused as to whom the sender is, but considerably more happens here.
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): Maureen works in Paris as a personal assistant to a self-absorbed fashion model to support herself (duties include picking up various possibly-interesting-clothes for her employer with a strict admonition to never try any of them on herself) but she’s also trying to make paranormal-contact with her recently-deceased twin brother, Lewis (both siblings share this psychic ability, but he was much more adept at it, with their mutual promise that whoever died first would reach out from the great beyond to the other), partly out of respect for the promise from her brother, partly as help for a couple who want to buy the house Lewis died in as long as it’s not compromised with an angry haunting. Attempting to say what else goes on in this unique, mysterious film without getting into spoiler territory is difficult because various surprises keep popping up in the plot, so I’ll just confine myself to noting Maureen begins receiving various unidentified phone texts that leave her greatly disturbed as to whom or where the sender might be.
Even though I can’t say much more about this film unless you’re willing to delve into the spoilers provided below, I'll recommend it as a marvelously fascinating experience, although you may want more definitive answers as to what’s happening here than writer-director Assayas is willing to divulge; even without that full sense of resolution, though, I think you’d be well-satisfied by yet-another-solid performance from Kristen Stewart who’s proving herself to possess quite a range in her on-screen-work. But if you're interested in Personal Shopper you’d better look fast because it’s already been out for 5 weeks, not doing that great with its ticket sales, quite likely to be gone soon.
So, curious readers, if you can abide plot spoilers in order to learn much more about the particular cinematic offering under examination this week please feel free to read on for more of the traditional Two Guys in-depth-explorations in our brilliant (!)-but-lengthy review format.
What Happens: Maureen (Kristen Stewart) has 2 reasons to be living in Paris at present: (1) She’s employed as an assistant to famous-but-bitchy fashion model Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), with her chief duties including picking up clothes that have caught her boss’ eye but are unavailable for her direct acquisition because her fame precludes her mingling with the public (apparently when you operate at that level you can also send back anything that turns out not to suit you, no matter the expense of the item); despite Maureen’s ease toward this high-roller-environment she hobnobs with (but has no actual connection to except her job) she’s directly forbidden by Maureen from getting too close to this luxurious lifestyle by never being allowed to try on anything she’s procuring for Kyra, (2) her twin brother, Lewis, has recently died from some rare form of heart failure (which may plague Maureen also, a doctor tells her) in a house on the outskirts of the city where she’s trying to make psychic contact with him because they both have paranormal gifts, although his were much stronger, allowing him to function as a spiritual medium making contact with the dead.
These siblings made an agreement that the first to go would reach out to the other so Maureen’s anxious to finalize that, as well as determine that the house isn’t disruptingly-haunted so that a married couple can buy it, then renovate the place. While Maureen's 1st overnight visit to the large, mostly empty house results in little more than hearing strange noises, on a 2nd attempt—while she’s asleep—we see the spirit of a woman clearly floating around, although we’re (or, I guess I should say, I'm) never sure about who she is nor why she’s there. (Although she may be—or be connected to—an actual early-20th-century-artist from Sweden, Hilma af Klint, whose abstract work was way ahead of its time [and predates Wassily Kandinsky, usually credited with inventing pure pictorial abstraction], but this wasn't recognized until long after her death; ... Shopper presents her nonobjective-images as useful for meditative doorways into other dimensions by paranormal practitioners. Her The Swan, no. 17  is shown here in the accompanying photo.)
|By the time you finish this review you may think I'm fixated |
on Kristen Stewart, but it's really just a case of almost all
of the publicity photos that I could find feature only her.
However, we soon find out youngish-Maureen’s barely-tolerated/more-mundane-aspects of her Parisian-life (she admits in Skype conversations with her long-distance-lover who’s been away for a long time installing a complex, high-tech security system far off in the desert of Oman she hates her job but still resists his entreaties to join him because of her pre-death-pact with her brother) are often spent just picking up items for Kyra (even if Maureen has to take the train to London to get them), then delivering these various items of clothing to Kyra's plush living quarters where one day, while waiting for her self-consumed-boss to finally get off the phone, she has a talk in the living room with Ingo (Lars Eidinger), Kyra’s lover, who’s equally-grumpy that day, about likely getting displaced because Kyra’s (never-seen) husband’s getting suspicious. Then another plot complication emerges when Maureen starts receiving unidentified texts that she’s not sure are coming from someone living or dead, although the mysterious communicant leaves her a room key in an upscale hotel which she visits but can find nothing about the identity of her benefactor because the room’s been booked in her name, paid for with cash. Through the texts, though, Maureen’s finally encouraged to break Kyra’s rules so one day when the little dragon is out of town Maureen goes to Kyra’s apartment (she has a key), tries on some swanky evening clothes, masturbates herself in Kyra’s bed while wearing them, then sleeps there (an amorphous spirit appears while she snoozes but it's not clear how this connects with previous scenes except that Maureen has unrefined psychic connections that follow her around). The next morning she leaves but comes back that evening to find Kyra bloodily-murdered; after hearing loud noises, seeing lights in the back of the apartment Maureen runs away, anonymously calls the police about Kyra’s death.
More texts demand that Maureen must meet the mysterious sender at the hotel (with a claim that he/she/it has access to her place and will intrude shortly if she doesn’t comply; she believes this because she left some jewelry at Kyra's home but it’s now in Maureen’s apt.) so she goes to the hotel room where she seems to confront the texter (looking directly at her so we don’t know who it is before fadeout—a tactic often used to end scenes in this film). The next morning, though, it all somewhat begins to come together with odd scenes that show doors opening from an empty elevator into the lobby, then the front doors to the street opening and closing even as no one walks through, followed by Ingo going through the entry doors himself (followed by yet another non-presence-opening-and-closing of the hotel's main entrance) only to be taken down by police as he’s apparently been traced to Kyra’s murder (we assume he’s Maureen’s texter also but nothing’s said to verify that). Next, we have Maureen visiting Lewis’ former girlfriend, Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz), where she has a new beau who used to work with Lewis, says he senses his presence even now, after which a glass floats through the kitchen in the background of a shot, falls to the ground and breaks. Soon thereafter Maureen’s finally in Oman, is taken to where her boyfriend lives (he’s still at work, will arrive later) where yet another floating glass breaks, following by strange noises and a final fadeout.
|Here's a shot of Nora von Waldstätten as Kyra, one of the|
very few usable, non-Stewart photos that I came across.
So What? Personal Shopper confounds the normal attempts of a close-analytical-process as it mixes elements of a very-unnerving-ghost-story with an unsettling-stalking-mystery which (in retrospect) doesn’t seem to be tied to the paranormal plot (or is it?), a gruesome murder where the killer has a morbid-motive (but if he is Ingo functioning as the mystery-texter he’s obviously got a grudge going against Kyra also, certainly knows how to manipulate all of the plot's circumstances to his grisly benefit), and a few lingering questions about the presence of this manifested ghost (these ghosts?) in all of this other activity which doesn’t seem related to Lewis and Maureen at all (it’s clear that she’s frequently in the presence of something supernatural but the seeming hostility—including X’s carved onto walls and tables—implies some other spirit than Lewis, or if it’s him we have no understanding of why he’d be so hostile to his devoted sister). Some have referred to this film as “Hitchcockian” but only from the buildup-of-suspense-comparisons not from a refusal-to-explicate-the-plot-perspective (even in Psycho  when it’s clear that Norman Bates is a deranged-murderer we get a lengthy explanatory scene at the end detailing how he absorbed his dead mother’s persona, with “her” giving the film’s final speech from inside of her son’s mind about how “she’s” going to continue hiding her true nature from her police captors). Conversely, Assayas contends (see the 3rd link far below attached to this film) that he doesn’t intend to explain everything, leaving us with something that’s oddly more in the vein of Poetic Realism (as with such classics as L’Atalante [Jean Vigo, 1934] or Like Water for Chocolate [Alfonso Arau, 1992]) rather than a nice, neatly-wrapped-up horror or crime movie from the realm of plot-dominated Formalism.*
*I doubt that many of you would want to delve into an obtuse, academic explanation of these terms, but if you do one extremely useful source is David Bordwell’s On the History of Film Style (1997).
|By now, even Kristen's getting tired of seeing all these|
shots of herself; I can't blame her for nodding off.
Despite the many unanticipated nuances that keep confounding what we’ve come to expect from cinematic narratives usually being explicated for us (except in the rare case of intentionally-ambiguous masterpieces such as what we find in Blowup [Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966] or even more so as vaguely-explored in intangibly-inexplicable intra-/inter-personally-probing-aspects of our shared human existence presented in Persona [Ingmar Berman, 1966]), critics mostly embrace the unexpected aspects of Personal Shopper which has scored 79% positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, a composite score of 77% at Metacritic (more details in the Related Links section for this film far below) while Assayas was awarded the Best Director honor at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. Public response hasn’t been so solid, though, given that the film’s made only about $1 million in domestic (U.S.-Canada) grosses, even after 5 weeks in release, so that it’s now playing in only 141 theaters (disappearing fast, if you’re trying to find it) so clearly this is for the more-cerebral-filmgoer who’s interested in an retrospective pondering rather than the typical horror attack of upturned crucifixes, massive amounts of splattered blood or a mystery story of unexpected murder.
Given my assumption that your most likely encounter with Personal Shopper will be—if at all—through some form of its post-theatrical-video-release I’d encourage you to consider seeking it out because it so effectively keeps you off balance as to where it’s going next, from the opening scenes of Maureen followed in those long tracking shots through Lewis’ spookily-empty (but not fully quiet) house all the way through to the strange, sudden ending (not unlike that of Blowup) as she’s being cryptically-confronted by some presence from the paranormal even though she’s now moved on to another continent (not that spirits likely have any time-space-barriers on their movements, but this abrupt closure makes it clear whomever/whatever that is actively in her life is attached to her, not to a specific environment) with the texting mystery and the unexpected murder (not that Kyra’s given us too much reason to weep over her demise) thrown in for further complication but a refusal of closure as to exactly how this all fits together. Assayas and Stewart have successfully worked together before in Clouds of Sils Maria (review in our May 14, 2015 posting—still working its way toward a more-readable-paragraph-layout [I ask your tolerance, but it’s still better than the ridiculously-run-on-versions of prior years] while opening with a shot of my cat, Bella [who ultimately became the $4,500 kitty before her rashes finally cleared up, although her tender tummy still helps "individualize" our carpets] who continues to bring us joy, when she actually notices that we live here too—I’ve also got some ramblings in this prior posting about aging in the So What section, quite appropriate for our next review here below), for me an even-better-film overall where Steward's also in the role (Valentine) of an assistant to a star (Juliette Binoche) but one who’s older, more in dialogue with Stewart’s character until they have a falling-out. Clouds … is certainly more straightforward in narrative terms although Valentine ambiguously disappears in a manner that sets the mood for what’s here developed further in Personal Shopper.
As I initially set out to discover an appropriate song that I might use for my usual structure of a review-ending-Musical Metaphor (taking one last look—or listen, as the case may be now—at the subject at hand), I admit the myriad directions of Personal Shopper had me a bit stymied with only something as odd as a mid-1960s-dose of Bob Dylan surrealism (such as the exquisite "Visions of Johanna"* [on the grand 1966 Blonde on Blonde album]) coming to me as something that might try to reasonably reflect this unpredictable film; then, as I was gathering my background info for the review, skimming through the many varying Rotten Tomatoes comments I noticed one from David Stratton of The Australian; referring to Stewart he says that “You just can’t take your eyes off her, whether she’s involved in something wild and unpredictable or just talking into her phone.”** That got me thinking about an ambiguous song I haven’t heard in a long time, but it’s so haunting I just had to find it which I finally did after a lengthy diversion (because I didn't know for sure what the title was). It’s “The Blower’s Daughter” by Damien Rice (from his 2002 debut album O; the song’s title, given that Rice is Irish, could easily refer to an Irish slang term for a hashish dealer) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YXVMCHG-Nk (a tune which comes back to me as something I occasionally hear when my wife, Nina, plays the album or which I vaguely remember from its use in the soundtrack of Closer [Mike Nichols, 2004] an impactful romantic tragedy of interlocking/uncoupling-couples), with allusive lyrics that conjure up for me the ghost of Lewis psychically saying to Maureen, “And so it is Just like you said it would be Life goes easy on me Most of the time” (in death), but he’s still actively connected to his twin, feeling “I can’t take my eyes off of you […] I can’t take my mind off of you,” turning her life into constant confusion as to what’s happening because of his (?) presence, why it’s happening, so we’re left wondering if because of all this she might really be thinking, “Did I say I loath you? [or, if it’s not Lewis, then whatever spirit is haunting her] Did I say that I want to Leave it all behind?”***
Once you’ve worked your way through all of the (admittedly unnecessary [but it felt good to gripe all about of this foolishness]) footnotes below you can leave this review behind as well with my hopes you never get sidetracked as long as I did trying to find a song that proved as elusive to identify, verify, and offer to you as are Personal Shopper’s effectively-off-kilter-narrative-contents.
*Including this song here is yet another bit of my diversionary-sidetracking, this time even further from my usual journalistic standards (?), but it’s a favorite Dylan tune of mine and my marvelous wife, Nina's—she's one of my few acknowledged-readers (and she's always my most-useful-after-the-fact-proofreader [though she’d gladly do it before-the-fact if I wouldn’t post these things so damn late every week])—so I offer it in tribute to her in this version of "... Johanna" from a 1966 concert in Belfast, Northern Ireland (used by muddily-metaphorical-me as a vague connection to Damien Rice, although he was born in Celbridge, County Kildare, “southern” Ireland) in a performance where you can clearly understand what Dylan’s singing about (not a guarantee in more recent decades of our newest Nobel Literature laureate’s performances—I speak from at-times-disappointed-experience).
**If you wish to read Stratton’s review you might try either this link or this one—which popped up at various times in my attempts to get to this source—but be forewarned you may just get an invitation to subscribe to The Australian before you go any further, although if you just type “david stratton review of personal shopper” into a search engine you might land on the actual article (how I inconsistently got the above links), but I can’t guarantee anything. You’ll have to trust that I read through the entire (complimentary) review, with hopes that you’ll be able to somehow do the same—or maybe not, when I tried to verity that strategy I ended up with just the subscription page again.
***I must warn you, though, if you get intrigued by this song but somehow lose these explanations of and links to it—remembering only that haunting refrain of “I can’t take my eyes off of you”—so that you do some Internet searches that lead you to references of Josh Groban singing a song of that title, DON’T go down the rabbit hole of trying to figure out how this could be what you’re looking for when the song’s not listed on any Groban album (except for a vague reference to a Chess in Concert live recording where this song’s #19 of 81 cuts, yet when you search out that album you find you’re dealing with soundtracks from the London , Broadway , or other cast recordings of the play Chess, including a Chess in Concert  with Groban as one of the singers but an almost completely different playlist, no mention at all of “I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”—DESPITE a YouTube video claiming to be Groban singing such a song [you can also find lyrics of such attached to him in other searches], but listen and hear that it’s actually Rice you’re listening to). What a waste of hours of my time trying to sort all this out until I finally noticed the Rice mention in the small print of the “Groban” video. Of course, you can also get distracted if you veer off into the completely-separate-yet-seemingly-similar (but you can’t copyright titles anyway) “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” 1967 hit by Frankie Valli (on The 4 Seasons Present Frankie Valli Solo 1967 album); hell, at this point I might as well give you a link to that one too (live performance; time and place unknown to me), as I was about ready to forget the intentions of my previous search and just go with Valli’s song, despite it not being at all what I was looking for (glad I didn’t, in the long run).
SHORT TAKES (spoilers also appear here)
Going In Style (Zach Braff)
3 long-time friends/former steelworkers find themselves in financial straits when their pensions are suspended due to a corporate merger so 1 of them decides they should rob the bank that’s callously foreclosing on his home due to insufficient mortgage payments; the action’s paced to its octogenarian protagonists but there are sufficient laughs to maintain interest.
Once again we’re in the realm of remakes, with the original version of this story (same title) dating back to 1979 (directed by Martin Brest), then starring George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg (with the main similarity to this new version being 3 old guys successfully pulling their 1st bank robbery, but otherwise it sounds like an entirely different plot [maybe I saw it but, honestly, I have no recollection of such] as the motivation for that stickup is just to bring a thrill into some dull lives with Burns being the only one who doesn’t die of natural causes during the run of the story). As I’ve noted in recent reviews (given the constant flow of remakes we’re getting at the cinema lately) I generally don’t have much use for such retreads unless they’ve got something usefully-new to offer or at least are technologically-impressive. This new version of Going In Style properly hits my 1st criterion quite well as the motivation for the robbery this time is revenge by 3 old (in all senses of the word) friends/former co-workers—Joe (Michael Caine), Willie (Morgan Freeman), Albert (Alan Arkin)—who are being robbed themselves by their Brooklyn steelworks ex-employer recently acquired by Wexler Industries, with the retirees’ pensions suddenly cut off to pay various other corporate expenses (including moving all the manufacturing jobs to Vietnam within 30 days [a theme that should resonate with Trump voters, although none of this movie’s jobs are brought back home, so keep that in mind over the next 4 years]) while Joe’s large-and-largely-uncaring-financial-institution (Williamsburg Savings Bank) is about to evict him, his daughter, and granddaughter for being behind on his suddenly-huge-mortgage payments, as well as managing our 3 guys' pension grab.
With assistance in the planning from shady Jesus (John Ortiz)—not the Son of God (as we saw in The Shack [Stuart Hazeldine; review in our March 29, 2017 posting]) but a guy who was behind a mask when 3 other bank robbers opened our story with their smooth, successful heist of WSB, witnessed by Joe (we don’t learn that about this co-conspirator until later)—and encouragement from watching Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet, 1975) on TV, our guys concoct a complicated scheme allowing them to get away with $2.3 million (leaving in what we in the San Francisco area call a para-transit-van, so as not to draw attention to their escape) while supposedly spending the afternoon at a charity event run by their fraternal organization called the Knights of the Hudson.
Along the way we get the standard fare of old-guy-jokes plus the physically-comedic-bits that play on the elderly-protagonists’-ages (off-screen, we find the youngest is Freeman at 79, with Arkin at 83, Caine 84), including a warmup theft at the local Value Town grocery store where we watch the silliness of Joe and Willie pushing large foodstuffs into their clothes, then try for a getaway with a motorized shopping cart (which sets them up for potential discovery when the store manager, Keith [Kenan Thompson, from NBC-TV’s Saturday Night Live], later compares his video surveillance of his thieves to that from the bank, seeing the same gait in Albert, with a further clue coming from a little girl who offered her doll to the bank robbers, exposing Willie’s mask enough to know he’s African American). Despite the determination of FBI Special Agent Hamer (Matt Dillon) to crack this case (the bank’s anxious too, given the money they’ve lost with the recent robberies), nothing comes of it because the girl doesn’t identify any of them when they're brought to a police lineup (even though she recognizes Willie’s wristwatch with a photo of his granddaughter in it), so they all get away with the crime, now live comfortably (they only wanted what they needed for the mortgage and their pension incomes), secretly giving away the excess funds to supportive waitress Mitzi (Siobhan Fallon Hogan) at their favorite dive-y diner and their buddies at the Knights lodge (the one we see most is slightly-loony Milton [Christopher Lloyd]), with the final plot wrap-up allowing Albert to donate a kidney to save Willie from full renal failure, a “red herring” scene where we’re led to think Albert died in the process, then the payoff when we learn we’re at his wedding to long-time-sweetheart Annie (Ann-Margaret).
Going In Style is a pleasant enough jaunt to the local movie palace, especially relatable to those of us “of a certain age” (of the group I saw this with, the youngest ones are 66, with me almost halfway down the road [Not over the hill, damn it!] to 70—although the critical community at large, [probably generally younger than us], isn’t so receptive, with dismal scores of 44% at RT, a bit-higher-50% at MC; as for the box-office so far, it wasn’t exactly a heist, with a relatively-small $16.7 million on opening weekend [$11.9 million of it domestically, yet the movie's playing in over 3,000 theaters]), extremely-well-acted by its principals, but it’s not something you’re going to remember much as the months roll on. However, my Musical Metaphor was much easier to determine (and find) than the one for Personal Shopper because not only does its theme (older people taking control of their lives when left behind by society at large) fit my chosen song but we also have the connection of their bank robbery being done while wearing (barely-recognizable) “Rat Pack” masks of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr., so what else could I pick but Sinatra’s “My Way” (from his 1969 album of the same name, a song with lyrics by Paul Anka based on the 1967 French tune, “Comme d’habitude” [by Claude François, Jacques Revaux, Gilles Thibault]) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A6gBw-tK82E, a 1989 live performance by Frank; it’s not a great video, but at least you see him (elderly as he looks [about 79 at the time] here in correspondingly-washed-out-imagery) sing rather than just listening to the original recording over some photos like in the other versions I found. It’s an appropriately-defiant-aural-attitude for Going in Style, which I enjoyed but can’t truly praise as being anything more than a predictable, easy-going, although quite-funny-at-times experience. (Just like reading this blog, wouldn’t you say?)
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
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Here’s more information about Personal Shopper:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bKZMhHpBx_c (26:16 interview with director Olivier Assayas, actor Kristen Stewart)
Here’s more information about Going in Style:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NMsDaS5HZvg (28:22 rambling [at best; now I don't feel so bad when I constantly do this] interview with actors Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Alan Arkin, and Ann-Margaret [begins with a repeat of the above trailer])
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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken*
*Please note that YouTube keeps taking down various versions of this majestic Eagles performance at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame so I have to keep putting in newer links (of the same damn material) to retrieve it; this “Hotel California” link was active when I did this posting but the song won’t be available in all of our previous ones done before 4/13/2017. Sorry, but there are too many postings to go back and re-link every one. The corporate overlords triumph again.
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.
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