I wasn’t wrong about Oliver Assayas’ new film the first time I wrote about it; I just wasn’t quite as right as I should have been. Like with any great works of art, whether it’s with an album that requires more than one spin or a film that reveals something new about itself with subsequent viewings, Personal Shopper (Highly Recommended) proved far more rewarding on a revisit in a theatrical setting. And after screening at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where Assayas won as Best Director, it finally comes to Chicago’s Landmark Century and AMC River East this Thursday. I urge every Chicagoan to see Personal Shopper on the largest screen imaginable, as so much of its primal thrills are excised from its inspired sound design and sleek, finely detailed compositions - the kind of finer details that are ultimately lost when you’re watching the film on a laptop or cellphone. And for a film that ultimately advocates detaching yourself from those tiny, lonely illuminated screens in favor of looking at the broader and abstract world we inhabit, it’s to your advantage to experience the film in a communal setting on the big screen.
For all that Personal Shopper is – a ghost story, an examination of our relationship with technology, the strain of our occupational onus, a crisis of agency, a murder mystery – it is united by an unsettling and all too poignant sense of grief. The loose ends that burden Maureen (Kristen Stewart) amount and assemble themselves into a spiral diagram of worry, where the death of her brother Lewis and her mounting professional frustrations inform a rich dialogue on our capacity to handle the cerebral stress of loss and anomie. Stewart’s performance is critical here, as it signals a maturation in her that was first suggested in Assayas’ previous film, Clouds of Sils Maria. While she had the advantage of being paired with Juliette Binoche in that film, here her partner is a specter, realized in the form of an apparition of her brother or her little-seen boss that keeps her trotting all around Europe purchasing, consuming.
With an identity that becomes increasingly compromised with every gleaming piece of jewelry, every carapace-tightening harness, and every stunningly lavish designer thread, we become witness to Maureen’s breakdown. It’s a bruise that won’t heal, a freshly-open lesion that lures Maureen away from who she is and transforms her into someone she thinks she wants to be: anyone else. That kind of despair is real pain. Ever construct a map of your life and get lost in thought about becoming someone else entirely? I have. It inspires a kind emptiness that precludes all matter and meaning. For some it’s insurmountable. Despair may be in vogue in our contemporary (political) culture, but it’s to Personal Shopper’s credit to proclaim that hopelessness is, indeed, not in fashion.