There are reasons to see French film ‘Personal Shopper’

By Gary Clift

As a story, director Olivier Assayas’s “Personal Shopper” is either diffuse or inept. But there are some decent reasons for going out to Seth Child to see this new French film.

The movie is a perhaps unintentional observation about the sorry state of feminism in Paris, where apparently women are all uncomfortable and dissatisfied until their personalities are informed by their relationship with men. Then the movie’s primary character is played by Kristen Stewart, an American actress who has most often played young, unformed characters looking for personality through romance.

We saw her last in Woody Allen’s “Cafe Society” in which she had taken on the director’s speaking rhythm. This is all the more notable because for “Personal Shopper” she has adopted the quick-burst speaking rhythm of Jessie Eisenberg, her costar in “Cafe Society” and “American Ultra.”

But the personality of her character in the new film, Maureen, is even more vacant than was the slacker personality she played in “American Ultra.” When the movie begins, Maureen is living in Paris, hanging around a big empty house associated with her brother. This twin of hers has recently died, and she also has a heart condition.

The twins had an agreement that the first of them to go would try to communicate with the survivor. Certainly at least one spirit is making noise around Maureen, but she fails to recognize it for what it is. She does, however, see light projections in the form of an early 20th century painter, a Swedish woman, who lived in the house.

This woman seems angry. There are at least two other ghosts in the film, and the order of events relative to the appearance of one of them is key to the advancement of the plot and to the viewer’s ability to make sense of the story’s climax.

But spiritualism is, during most of the movie, sort of a sidelight. The more significant events have to do with Maureen’s job. She works as a scooter-riding errand girl (more than as a “personal shopper” proper). Her boss is a celebrity who is too busy to go get her own designer clothes and jewelry.

Maureen has a key to Kyra’s contemporary apartment as well as to her own place and to the haunted house. And she sometimes sleeps over at her late brother’s fiancee’s house. That girl tells Maureen that she has already found a new beau, just to give us another example of a young woman insecure about her identity except as a companion to a man.

Maureen has a fellow she talks with using Skype. He is a computer programmer working on a project in rural Morocco. And then Kyra’s man meets Maureen when both of them are trying to see the self-importantly “busy” woman. This guy, Ingo (Lars Eidinger) tells our heroine that Kyra is terminating their romance.

It seems likely that it is Ingo who gets Maureen’s cell phone number and begins sending her brief text messages on a day when the go-fer is headed to London to pick up clothes. Though he maintains his anonymity and seems sort of creepy, she confesses some things to him. For example, though Kyra doesn’t want Maureen trying on the clothes she picks up, Maureen likes to try them on.

Why? She is ashamed to admit, but does, that she wishes she were someone else, and that she likes being frightened by doing what is forbidden.

Back in Paris she visits Kyra’s apartment and finds it a bloody mess. Kyra’s slashed corpse is in the bathroom. Maureen leaves the place before calling the police about the discovery. They are suspicious of her and would be moreso if they knew some jewelry she picked up for Kyra is in the store’s bags in Maureen’s apartment. Someone has apparently decided to set her up.

Maureen is furnished with a hotel key card—someone male has prepaid for the room in her name. After the murder she goes to the room. When she turns to see who is there to meet her, the camera shot ends.

The next actions are important if we are going to make sense of the overall story. But understanding the tale won’t, probably, enrich our understanding of the status of women in contemporary France. And maybe on the coasts in the U.S., too, though I feel certain the adult women I know around here would either snarl or chuckle if they heard Assayas suggesting that they, too, were each only the tofu to go along with the vivid flavors of a male presence.

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