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Review – ‘Personal Shopper’ Is the Best Film at Cannes 2016

By  · Published on May 24th, 2016

We Found the Best Film at Cannes 2016

Kristen Stewart mesmerizes in Olivier Assayas’ profoundly moving ghost story.

The Kristen Stewart renaissance is upon us. After winning the César Award for her eye-opening performance in the 2014 film Clouds of Sils Maria, critics and audiences alike cannot get enough of the now-great actress. Re-teaming with that film’s director, Olivier Assayas, Stewart delivers her best performance yet in the ghost thriller Personal Shopper.

Assayas uses the character of Maureen (Stewart) to craft an entirely original interpretation of a ghost story. Since the death of her twin brother, medium Maureen has resided in Paris with the hope that she will be able to make contact with him. Paying the bills working as a personal shopper to a well-known celebrity, Maureen spends her free time in the home of her brother sorting through the various spirits who contact her there. Maureen’s routine is disrupted when she begins receiving text messages from an unknown number, which may or may not be from her brother’s ghost.

Viewers are forced to question whether Personal Shopper is a film that uses ghosts as a metaphor for grief, or a film about grief that just so happens to have ghosts in it. This is the question that keeps Personal Shopper a mystery to the very end. What makes the film so special is that it is not a ghost story by default. Assayas depicts Maureen coming into contact with spirits throughout the film, and these scenes bear quite the shock factor. Yet, it always feels as if the supernatural elements of Personal Shopper are secondary to the intense character study at the heart of the film.

The film is ultimately an exploration of the fragile Maureen, lost like the spirits she searches for. Spirits aside, we meet Maureen in a life filled with banality. She is stuck in a city she does not like, in a job she does not like, stuck until she can make contact with her brother and move on. In the role of Maureen, Stewart is able to capitalize on her best talents, creating an icy yet vulnerable protagonist. While her trademark ticks do rarely surface – I still cannot stand that charming bottom lip bite – it is most definitely her strongest, bravest, and most nuanced performance to date.

The spirits in Personal Shopper contribute to Assayas’ study on human – and inhuman – communication. Maureen is a woman whose interactions with those closest to her are plagued by barriers. Almost all of her correspondences with her boss are made via notes the two leave for one another, the rare in-person conversation occurring through a closed door. Likewise, Maureen’s boyfriend is living across Europe, the two occasionally conversing over a pixelated video chat. Perhaps Maureen’s most important interaction is with her brother, yet she does not even know if the presence she feels is his.

Assayas capitalizes on Maureen’s mystery texter to create palpable tension throughout the film. One sequence in particular is so tense and impeccably conceived that it feels as if it’s right out of a terrifying horror film. Aside from this particular scene, the rest of Maureen’s interactions with the unknown largely serve a thematic purpose. Assayas is therefore able to mix low art horror elements with highbrow art film in a combination that is original and stirring.

All the grace and madness of Maureen’s journey builds up to a flawlessly ambiguous ending, one that is essential in its openness. It is Assayas’ restraint that allows Personal Shopper to live on in the minds of viewers long after the closing credits. As the film that lingered for days, even through a series of excellent films, Personal Shopper comes out atop the rest. This incredibly moving esoteric masterpiece is the best film at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

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Toronto-based cinephile who especially enjoys French films.