2016; written and directed by Olivier Assayas; 105 mins
Here’s a film that proves me a glass-half-full kinda film fan (Aw, fuck off, Simon!). The reaction to this film was mixed at Cannes, getting mostly either boos or five star reviews and I’m sort of in the middle. I’m not totally au fait with those who say it’s a masterpiece but you’d clearly have to be an idiot to say this is a terrible film. I suspect that certain critics just had the blinkers on when they heard it was a horror movie. I thoroughly enjoyed myself with this movie! It’s a trashy B-movie ghost story wrapped inside a Euro-art film with an A-list Hollywood star.
The story tells of Maureen (Kristen Stewart), who is a personal shopper for tyrannical supermodel, Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten). Quickly, we learn she is a psychic who is, with the help of her sister-in-law (Sigrid Bouaziz), is looking to connect with her recently deceased twin brother, who died of a heart attack and with whom she shares the same heart defect. At the same time, as she travels round Paris to snap up all the best clothes for Kyra, she begins to receive very personal texts from an unknown sender.
Kristen Stewart is great and delivers on the fantastic work she did in Clouds of Sils Maria alongside Juliette Binoche, stepping up from supporting actress to leading the movie. Hers is quite a brilliant, minimalist, down-to-earth performance that makes you go with her character because she seems like one of the few real people in this stuck up fashion world. That said, it’s a performance that is already so particular to her – with the nervy tics and downcast eyes – that I want to see her moving on soon. She could be in danger of doing a Robert Downey Jr. and just doing Kristen Stewart in every movie.
It’s credit also to her that an extended sequence of her texting her ‘Unknown’ stalker whilst on a trip to London is thwarted from tedium. Here, you really wonder if our obsession with our phones is at risk of rendering modern characters fuck boring. It’s not that the sequence is boring but there is so much of Maureen on her phone as an average 21st century twentysomething that this so very nearly renders her a dull character. However, because the texts from Unknown are alternately pervy, threatening and conciliatory and Stewart’s reactions really tell her story (notice her thumbs trembling in the phone reverse shots) that it becomes a really good suspense sequence with her looking totally alone and trapped in crowded spaces.
I think it’s true to say that Olivier Assayas has much more tolerance for these rarefied strata of society that frequent top clothing stores and posh restaurants than I do and at first, looking at some of the characters, I wondered if I was gonna be able to tolerate this. Unlike Clouds of Sils Maria, however, which had such no-stakes drama, the genre trappings of the film and Maureen’s outsider status meant that I felt able to hold onto the central narrative. When posh people are threatened with violent death by forces they cannot control, my class principals are more sympathetic. When a famous, respected actress has a bit of a worry about getting old, I wonder: why – of all actresses – pick her?
Yorick le Saux‘s cinematography is suitably sleek yet naturalistic and Assayas’ usual spare use of music really pumps up the right moments. It’s a tad predictable and the ends don’t quite tie up but if you choose to go with it, it’s great fun with some really good, creepy moments!