At first, we don’t know what the hell this young woman is doing, spending the night alone in a rambling, French country house. The first significant word she says, after walking through unfurnished rooms in darkness, is both a name and a question: “Lewis?”
This is Maureen (Kristen Stewart). Who she is and what she’s doing there comes to us piecemeal in writer-director Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper — part ghost story, part psychological tone poem. Drenched with European ennui and narratively withholding, it feels like a 21st-century successor to Michelangelo Antonioni.
After her night alone in that house, Maureen reports back to three people in a café. “There was a presence,” she tells them, but alas, she didn’t make direct contact. See, she’s a self-described spiritual medium. So was her twin brother, Lewis. Lewis’s girlfriend Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz) is one of the trio at the café. Lewis isn’t, because he died three months ago.
While still alive, Lewis bound his sister to an oath: if one of them were to die first, he or she would send a message to the living sibling, as proof of an afterlife. That’s why Maureen has remained in Paris, working at a job she hates — though it might look glamorous from a distance.
She’s the personal shopper for a monstrous model/actress called Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten). Maureen’s days are filled with selecting the celeb’s pricey, mirrored and jagged clothing from Paris designers’ ateliers, hanging the purchases in Kyra’s luxe closets and cleaning up after Kyra’s latest tantrum or missed appointment. At night, she holes up in her garret apartment, researches the paranormal and waits for a signal from Lewis.
From this unusual setup, Assayas coaxes some creepy moments, and a sustained, bravura suspense sequence involving Maureen’s smartphone and an unknown texter. He (Or she? Or it?) seems to know her so well, she suspects it must be her brother.
The identity of the entity on her phone is less important than the unease the sequence causes. This isn’t exactly a ghost story, or a horror film, either. The best way to approach Personal Shopper is to understand it as a portrait of grief, of the magical thinking (to quote Joan Didion) that happens in the days, weeks, years following bereavement. The movie is about Maureen’s struggle between holding on, waiting for answers that might never come and the need to move forward.
This is Assayas’s second collaboration, after The Clouds of Sils Maria, with Stewart. He’s a man of many muses: Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep and Clean (she also became his wife for several years); his current wife, fellow director Mia Hansen-Løve, who acted in a couple of Assayas’s earlier films, and recently directed Things to Come, starring another of her husband’s muses, Juliette Binoche; and now, it’s Stewart’s turn to be the focus of Assayas’s eye. (She was the first American actress to win a César, France’s Oscar equivalent, for her supporting work in Clouds.) Her exhausted, emotionally true performance is reason enough to watch the new film.
Some may feel let down or baffled by the ending. It’s willfully elliptical. Assayas chooses to leave the mysteries (yes, more than one) unresolved, or under-explained. Anyone who had a problem with the ambiguous ending of Sils Maria won’t be any happier with Personal Shopper. Me, I sort of love them both.
Narratively more straight-forward, but even wilder than Assayas’s movie, Raw is an oh-my-God-don’t-look sensation, also from France.
Just out of high school, our mousy heroine Justine (Garance Marillier) rides with her parents to their old alma mater: a veterinary school, where older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is already enrolled. The family’s love of animals extends beyond their chosen profession. They don’t eat meat.
That changes gradually, then quickly, then gorily when Justine, as part of the week-long hazing of froshes, is forced to swallow a rabbit kidney. And discovers it’s just the amuse-bouche she’s been waiting for all her life.
It would be a shame to spoil some of the movie’s extreme surprises. It shrewdly blends monster-movie tropes (werewolves, cannibals) with questions about young sexuality and the power (or dangers?) of sisterhood.
Even before Raw goes Grand Guignol, it dislocates us in ways that make us feel like Justine — bewildered victims of our own kind of hazing. Things always feel a little off-kilter. Take the scenes following the drenching of the freshman class with a tsunami of blood (it’s like a large-scale version of prom night in Carrie.) After this initiation, the students blithely move on to the dining hall, where they eat lunch with their clothes, hair and faces still caked with plasma.
In an audacious feature debut (she previously directed a short and a TV movie), writer-director Julia Ducournau finds ways to surprise us from start to finish — not just with shocks, but with shifting tones and rhythms. (I’m pretty sure she speeds up one sex scene to put us on guard.) There’s a wild, sticky poetry at work throughout.
But fair warning: this really is one of those movies that’s not for the squeamish. (Puking and panicked dashes to the lobby have been reported.) It takes great delight in making you squirm. Trust me: I’ve got a strong stomach, but a couple of moments I didn’t know whether to look away, or guffaw at how gleefully Ducournau is pushing the viewers’ buttons. So be prepared, or stay far away. But for adventurous filmgoers, Raw is (yeah, sorry) delicious.
Personal Shopper. With Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz. Written and directed by Olivier Assayas. In English and other languages, with subtitles. Rated R. 105 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
Raw. With Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella. Written and directed by Julia Ducournau. In French with subtitles. Rated R. 99 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.