PER­SONAL SHOP­PER ★★★★★

Empire (Australasia) - - On.Screen - OLLY RICHARDS

OUT 13 APRIL RATED TBC / 105 MINS

DI­REC­TOR Olivier As­sayas

CAST Kris­ten Ste­wart, Lars Eidinger, Si­grid Bouaziz

PLOT Mau­reen (Ste­wart) lives in Paris, work­ing as a per­sonal shop­per. She is also a medium, an abil­ity also pos­sessed by her twin brother. Fol­low­ing his death, from a condition she shares, Mau­reen can­not move on with her life un­til she’s had a sign from her brother that he’s now at peace.

THERE’S NO ONE aspect of Olivier As­sayas’ lat­est film that en­tirely works. As a ghost story it swoops be­tween be­ing gen­uinely creepy and al­most laugh­ably silly, with some theme park-level scares. As a mys­tery-thriller it takes you down fright­en­ing roads but to a glar­ingly ob­vi­ous des­ti­na­tion. And by its end, it’s left an un­ruly pile of loose ends. Yet as un­sat­is­fy­ing as it is in its de­tails, it’s so thick with at­mos­phere and so strong as a char­ac­ter piece that its many short­com­ings can be, if not for­got­ten, at least for­given. It’s such a pe­cu­liar mud­dle that it’s im­pos­si­ble to cat­e­gorise, but it rev­els in its weird­ness. That is its great­est strength.

Kris­ten Ste­wart is on the best form of her ca­reer as Mau­reen, the least com­fort­able match of name and ac­tor since An­gelina Jolie played Eve­lyn Salt. Mau­reen or­gan­ises out­fits for a hor­ri­ble celebrity, who we barely see but hear a lot about be­hind her back. Mau­reen hates her job, which she’s very good at, and her tem­po­rary home town Paris. The only rea­son she’s still in the city is be­cause her twin brother died there and she’s wait­ing for a sign from his spirit. For Mau­reen sees ghosts. She doesn’t un­der­stand them, but she sees them. She’s every bit as con­fused by the liv­ing. When Mau­reen starts re­ceiv­ing text mes­sages from an un­known num­ber, she en­ters into a phone-based re­la­tion­ship that’s far more open than any she has in real life. As the mes­sages be­come more sin­is­ter we, and Mau­reen, can sense dan­ger rac­ing to­wards her, claws out­stretched, but she’s too des­per­ate to feel some­thing, any­thing, to re­treat from it.

Ste­wart has of­ten looked un­com­fort­able in her own skin on screen, seem­ing like she’d rather be else­where in films such as Twi­light and Snow White & The Hunts­man. Here, play­ing some­one who can’t work out who she is, she shows to­tal con­trol. Her Mau­reen is fluid and re­laxed go­ing through the mo­tions at work, spiky and hur­ried when pulled into any­thing like a mean­ing­ful con­ver­sa­tion and, in one darkly sexy se­quence in which she en­joys her boss’ home and wardrobe while she’s away, swells to be­come the con­fi­dent crea­ture she says she can’t imag­ine she truly is. We can’t get a grip on which of these shows the real her, if any of them do, but it’s that slip­per­i­ness that makes her mag­netic. She leaves us with plenty of ques­tions at the end, just as a great char­ac­ter should. Much of her role is played with­out di­a­logue. Ste­wart man­ages to bring a range of emo­tions to the sim­ple act of tap­ping mes­sages into a phone. (Al­though who knows whether we’re meant to read any­thing into the fact she’s the sort of self­ish mon­ster who has left her key-tones switched on or if the noisy clack­ing just plays bet­ter on screen.) Her last film with As­sayas, Clouds Of Sils Maria, won Ste­wart a César. She’s found her­self as an ac­tress with him, in the same way Keira Knight­ley did with Joe Wright.

But there’s a dis­tinct lack of flow be­tween the scenes of Mau­reen slop­ing around a bedrag­gled man­sion wait­ing for spir­its and those of her con­duct­ing a psy­cho­sex­ual en­tirely tex­tual af­fair as she races round the city. This makes it feel like two films bolted to­gether. If it’s a bit messy, it’s a beau­ti­ful mess. It puts the viewer in much the same po­si­tion as Mau­reen: un­cer­tain of what’s go­ing on or what we’re wait­ing for, but un­able to pull away.

VERDICT A Hitch­cock­ian Poltergeist with a lit­tle bit of Sin­gle White Fe­male chucked in, it’s every bit as con­fused as that combo sounds, but also just as in­trigu­ing. Ste­wart shows she’s now one of the most in­ter­est­ing ac­tresses of her gen­er­a­tion.

Kris­ten Ste­wart: does she look like a Mau­reen?

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