Cannes Review: Personal Shopper

Something lost and something gained.

As cinema has rolled on through the decades since the 60s, suspense has been less and less well approached in new forms. Nevertheless here it appears that Olivier Assayas has found a new modern approach to the genre. It’s gripping, intriguing and yet maintains a slow allure that gently ferries you around from one suspenseful moment to the next. It’s like a lullaby that’s filled with sporadically placed operatic lines building up to the highest pitch and then flattening out again.

Almost as fearless as the film’s protagonist director Olivier Assayas delved into the realm of exposition over texting — a technique mostly avoided in film and reserved for television. However, Assayas plays to its strengths in harnessing those concepts that make it unique. Most notably conversations with a character unknown to us and the protagonist. While this is usually achieved through an anonymous phone call, a discussion through a wall or a man in the shadows. Here he makes use of it in a way otherwise elusive on film. In Assayas’ screenplay, he lays out a rather long conversation in motion using texts, which would be too lengthy and dull a scene to the audience if embodied any other way with one character still remaining unknown.

While this will play well multiple times, the fault in this form of exposition is the lost visual dynamics during conversation. Although, this does also play a little in part to heightening those moments of fear that do play well with the visual senses throughout the rest of the picture. Nonetheless, the feeling remains of something that could have easily been lost here. That is if not for Kirsten Stewart’s superb performance, which quickly replaces what’s lost, keeping you intrigued and frightened.

Assayas as well as introducing this new texting style to film in a way that’s executed correctly, he also plays around with it. As the conversation over texts progresses we see just how well this technique can be used. One minute we’re sitting with a slightly distressed protagonist Maureen, portrayed by Stewart. The next, she turns on her phone and we receive a slew of backlogged texts that ramp up the terror without moving from 0 to 60 in seconds. This is something I’ve never seen depicted before without the visuals commanding the scene or a need for extensive prior exposition.

The story follows Maureen after the death of her twin brother. They facing a medical condition that could turn fatal or not made a pact that whichever one died first would send the other a sign. We find her a few months after the death, waiting in Paris for a sign, carrying out the job of a personal shopper for celebrity Kyra. That’s until she starts receiving a series of unknown messages that send her down a rabbit hole of suspense, terror, and fright.

If you ask different Cannes audience members you’ll get a series of different responses but the festival was mostly split on the film. However, anyone that appreciates the works of Hitchcock and yet remains open enough to not write off the developing artistic qualities of well produced modern television will find something here to enjoy.