Throughout film history there are all sorts of movie that come to be seen as “companion films” whether the director intended them to be or not. To cite a recent example, I have trouble thinking about Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan without relating it to his previous movie about performance based obsession The Wrestler. That linkage was probably intention, but take another recent example in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. Both are violent crime movies seemingly removed from the director’s horror roots and both star Viggo Mortenson, but are they really all that deeply linked beneath the surface? Often these thematic companion films end up being parts of thematic trilogies like Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy or Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy or Antonioni’s famed Alienation trilogy so it’s sometimes hard to tell if we simply need to wait and see what happens next when two films come back to back in a director’s filmography and seem like they’re each responses to the other. I bring this up because the new film from Olivier Assayas, Personal Shopper, seems to share an awful lot with his last film Clouds of Sils Maria and yet there are also a lot of differences too.
The film follows Maureen (Kristen Stewart), a young American living alone in Paris where she acts as a personal shopper for celebrities. For those not in the know, a personal shopper is someone who goes out to boutique stores on the behalf of the rich and/or famous and finds garments they believe would be to their client’s tastes and buy them on their behalf. As the film begins Maureen is in mourning, she recently lost a twin brother who had a heart attack as a result of a rare heart condition, a condition that she also has. She’s been told that it’s entirely possible to live to a ripe old age despite this condition but you can tell it’s still a specter that weighs on her. What also weighs on her is that she shared a very close bond with her brother to the point where she almost felt like she had a sixth sense about him and believes that if he wants to he can reach out to her from “beyond” and give her some sign. That sign seems to come to her one day when she receives a text message on her phone from an unknown number and comes to believe that she is indeed communicating with someone from beyond the grave.
The film’s common bonds with Clouds of Sils Maria are pretty readily apparent. Both films are predominantly English language (albeit decidedly European) productions starring Kristen Stewart as an American who’s in France to perform as a servant of sorts for a famous person. Both films also employ some similar tricks in terms of film grammar as well but there are also very clear differences between the two films as well. Clouds of Sils Maria had two main characters and was just as much Juliette Binoche’s film as it was Kristen Stewart’s. Also Kristen Stewart’s character here is quite different from the one she played in the earlier film. Both characters could be said to be “punks” of some variety but the attitude is very different. In the earlier film she maybe had some sadness beneath the surface but was otherwise a pretty confident and talkative character but here she’s kind of an emotional mess and has a deep melancholic streak. Also, while there was a certain magical realism at play in Clouds of Sils Maria (if that’s even an accurate term for it) there’s an overtly supernatural element to Personal Shopper. The film should not be mistake for a true horror movie by any means but from the very beginning of the film it’s made pretty clear that there is a ghost in it and much of the film is all about how much Stewart wants to believe in this ghost and how she interprets it.
I don’t think I liked Personal Shopper as much as I liked Clouds of Sils Maria but it does have a lot going for it. Stewart is quite good in the film even if the role seems like less of a stretch for her than her previous role in an Assayas film. The film also manages to find some excitement in some interesting ways. Like, an awful lot of this movie actually involves watching someone type and receive text messages, which would seem to be a difficult thing to make cinematic but Assayas does somehow manage to pull it off. The movie certainly establishes a palpable mood of melancholia but beyond that I’m not sure I ever really truly connected with the character at its center and found its occasional jaunts into the overtly supernatural to be a bit clumsy. Clouds of Sils Maria was a movie I’d probably recommend to pretty much any cinema literate person but this one is a little bit iffier. I’d probably still recommend it but I’d recommend Clouds of Sils Maria first and if that leaves you wanting more than definitely give Personal Shopper a shot too, but there’s a reason why I’ve hardly been able to write a sentence about the movie without mentioning the previous movie.