Personal Shopper has been described as a supernatural thriller, and in a way it is — but you’ll be tremendously disappointed if you go to see it expecting something in the Exorcist tradition. More than anything else, the latest film from French director Olivier Assayas, which won him the best director award (shared) at Cannes last year, is a love letter to its American lead actress, the remarkable Kristen Stewart.
From the start of her career as a child actress in films such as Panic Room (2002), in which, at the age of nine, she played Jodie Foster’s daughter, Stewart has made a strong impression with her intelligent, thoughtful performances, whether in high-profile popular films such as the Twilight series or in small-scale films aimed at minority audiences. Personal Shopper, which falls into the latter category, is the second French film she has made with Assayas, following Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), in which she played the personal assistant to a famous actress (Juliette Binoche). She has a somewhat similar role here as Maureen Cartwight, an American living in Paris and working as an assistant to a wealthy superstar/socialite known only as Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten). Maureen and her employer mostly communicate by phone, and the young woman’s job is to visit various high-end fashion shops and select gowns for Kyra to wear. She’s strictly forbidden from trying on these hugely expensive designer garments herself.
We first meet Maureen in very different circumstances, however, as she visits a lonely house she believes may be haunted. We learn that she is a twin, and that she and her brother, Lewis, shared a congenital heart condition. The siblings believed they could make contact with dead people, and made a compact that whichever twin died first would communicate with the survivor. Lewis has recently died and his partner, Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz), has brought Maureen to this empty house where Lewis had spent some time.
After experiencing what appears to be a ghostly presence but failing to make actual contact with her dead brother, Maureen starts getting text messages from Unknown, who seems to know exactly where she is and what she is doing at any given time. Could this be Lewis? Or is there some other explanation? And what can we expect when Unknown lures Maureen to a room in a hotel?
One of the key sequences in this intriguing film takes place during a brief trip Maureen makes to London on the instructions of her employer. Travelling on the Eurostar from Paris through the Channel Tunnel, Maureen is bombarded with texts from Unknown, messages that seem both fascinating and sinister. In fact, few films have used the technology of the smartphone in the way Assayas does throughout this movie.
Ultimately Personal Shopper moves into murder-mystery territory, but don’t expect to find neat explanations for everything. Assayas likes to keep his audience guessing, right up to the closing credits. And being a film buff himself, he also likes to reference the cinema of the masters, from Hitchcock to Fritz Lang. But the film would be nothing without Stewart. You just can’t take your eyes off her, whether she’s involved in something wild and unpredictable or just talking into her phone. She’s a smart, modern actress and this strange, unsettling film is a perfect showcase for her considerable talents. The Country Doctor is also a French film, but an altogether more conventional one. Nevertheless, it’s a film of quality that serves as a reminder of the dedication and commitment of people in the medical profession.
The title sets the scene. Jean-Pierre Werner (Francois Cluzet) is a doctor based in a sprawling farming region. He has cared for the people of his district for years and he’s more than a doctor to them: he’s a social worker, adviser, friend, confidant. Early every morning he makes house calls to patients who are unable to leave their homes; his surgery is filled with men and women of all ages as well as children. He is on call in case of emergency at all times. He has no wife, but he has a grown son who lives not far away. Personal Shopper (MA15+) Limited release from Thursday The Country Doctor (Medecin de campagne) (M) In limited release A Silent Voice (Koe no Katachi) (tbc) In limited release Personal Shopper, The Country Doctor,