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PERSONAL SHOPPER

Producer: Charles Gillibert
Director: Olivier Assayas
Writer: Olivier Assayas and Christelle Meaux
Stars: Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielsen Lie, Ty Olwin, Hammou Graia, Nora von Waldstatten, Benjamin Biolay, Audrey Bonnet and Pascal Rambert
Studio: IFC Films

B

The very weirdness of Olivier Assayas’ second film with Kristen Stewart would seem to militate against it. “Personal Shopper” is set, to some extent at least, in the world of high fashion (Stewart plays Maureen Cartwright, a young American woman living in France, who picks out clothes and shoes for a rich woman too busy to do it herself). But it’s also a murder mystery of sorts, as well as a horror movie involving spectral phenomena that can apparently communicate with the living through modern devices like smart phones. It seems implausible that a combination of these elements should make for a successful film, but though its parts don’t entirely cohere, this is a fascinating, if sometimes frustrating, piece of work—a slow-moving, macabre psychological thriller that, while implausible, casts an intoxicating spell.

Cartwright, you see, isn’t merely the shopper of the title. She might also have psychic powers, which she is putting to the test by staying overnight in a house that’s supposedly haunted. (Apparently a couple considering buying the place won’t commit until they’re assured that any malignant spirits have been exorcised.) And that’s not all: the place was previously the home of her late twin brother Lewis and his girlfriend Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz), who’s trying to sell it. She shared a heart condition with Lewis, and years ago they had promised one another that whichever of them died first would attempt to contact the other from beyond. During her night in the house Maureen does encounter a ghost—a frightening apparition that sends her fleeing out the door. But it was not, she insists, Lewis.

On the job side, Cartwright continues to purchase wardrobe items for her employer Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten), whose celebrity status goes undefined but whose present lover, a journalist named Ingo (Lars Eidinger), offhandedly remarks that he thinks Kyra is about to dump him. Maureen must be careful, too, since the most important rule of her job is that she must never try on the garments she buys for Kyra; she does, though, first at the urging of some of the sellers, and then back at her apartment, where wearing the items gives her the vicarious thrill of being someone else.

A plot, of a sort, emerges when Maureen takes the channel train to England and begins receiving strange text messages suggesting that she’s being followed. The insistent texts have an erotic, threatening tone, and continue when she returns to Paris, setting up an assignation in a hotel room. Are the messages from Lewis? They’re certainly not from her boyfriend Gary (Ty Olwin), who’s off in Oman working on a long-term tech project and stays in touch only via Skype. Then a murder intervenes, and though the identity of the victim and how the search for the perpetrator progresses won’t be revealed here, it can be said that the picture offers a startling conclusion, though one that might provoke more questions than it answers.

Much about “Personal Shopper,” in fact, is befuddling, and it takes off on tangents that allow Assayas to indulge his filmmaking whims without really seeming to go anywhere. At one point, for example, Maureen consults an old Hammer-style movie about the psychic interests of novelist Victor Hugo, who conducted histrionic séances involving table-tapping spirits whose messages had to be worked out in transcription. The digression is just that, but Assayas seems to take enormous pleasure in recreating the sixties look of the clip, and that’s enough to justify its existence. There’s also a lovely scene involving some sort of presence moving unseen through a hotel lobby that’s carried off with a ridiculous simplicity that would have made James Whale proud; the fact that it doesn’t appear to have much connection to the plot is beside the point.

Much of the brooding mood of the picture, moreover, comes not from the director but his star. Stewart, with her hollowed-out look and her often blank expression, becomes a study in sorrow, obviously grief-stricken over Lewis’ death and desperately seeking some kind of closure while fearing what that might bring. Everybody else in the cast is purely functional, but the behind-the-camera contributions are essential to the atmosphere that Assayas and Stewart create—Yorick Le Saux’s dreamy camerawork, Francois-Renaud Labarthe’s production design, Marion Monnier’s halting editing, and especially Jurgen Doering’s costumes. Even the effects—absurdly rudimentary though they might be by Hollywood standards—seem entirely right.

You may come out of “Personal Shopper” scratching your head, but you will find it hard to shake off its effect.

WILSON

Producer: Mary Jane Skalski and Jared Ian Goldman
Director: Craig Johnson
Writer: Daniel Clowes
Stars: Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale, Cheryl Hines, Isabella Amara,
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures

C

Grouchy but ultimately lovable misfits are a staple of movies and television, and Woody Harrelson gets to play one in “Wilson,” Craig Johnson’s adaptation of a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, whose “Ghost World” made a modest splash under Terry Zwigoff’s direction in 2001. This time around, whatever magic might have existed on the printed page evaporates in a meandering, tone-deaf tale that trades in blunt eccentricity until it succumbs to sloppy sentiment.

The title character is a layabout living in a dumpy room in some unnamed town, apparently in the Midwest, who drones on in long bursts of narration about his gruff contempt for modern technology and people’s dependence on it. Wilson’s only friendship is with a couple (Brett Gelman and Mary Lynn Rajskub) who abruptly announce their intention to move to Missouri—a revelation that he responds to as a personal insult (which in turn leads to her excoriating him). His sole companion is a fox terrier whose strangulated “voice” he sometimes uses in talking to random passersby who remark on how cute the dog is, though he really needs no rationale for intruding obnoxiously on strangers to offer goofy rants about the world, stream-of-consciousness tirades that might seem oddly appropriate to the Age of Trump. (One the movie’s worst visual jokes, incidentally, is suddenly to include a shot of a theatre marquee advertising “Umberto D,” Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist masterpiece about a man with only a dog as his friend. To suggest that any comparison between it and “Wilson” would be valid is an insult to a brilliant film.)

Wilson’s life changes when he’s informed that his elderly father, a cancer patient, is at point of death, and dropping off his pet with dog sitter Shelly (Judy Greer), he’s off to his bedside (where he berates the dying man). His father’s death leads to introspection and to a decision to seek out a friend—first a childhood acquaintance (David Warshofsky) who proves even more socially maladjusted than he is, and then a possible girlfriend. After stalking an ill-tempered woman (Lauren Weedman) he meets in a pet store, he briefly connects with a woman (Margo Martindale) who’s been dumped by her boyfriend, and though he cavalierly insults her, she introduces him to the world of Google, via which he locates his ex-wife Pippi (Laura Dern), who left him years ago when she was pregnant, informing him that she had undergone an abortion.

Off Wilson goes to see poor Pippi, who’s attempting to leave behind a history of addiction and prostitution by avoiding drugs and working as a waitress. Though she understandably puts him off at first, for some unaccountable reason she succumbs to his quite hidden charms and reveals that she actually had the child and put her up for adoption. That sends Wilson on a search for her, and soon he has not only identified Claire (Isabella Amara), an overweight teen who affects a Gothic style in reaction to bullying classmates, but has arranged meetings with her, Pippi tagging along. One outing involves a reunion with Pippi’s censorious sister Polly (Cheryl Hines), which turns out disastrously and lands Wilson in prison—a stint that sees him become both a victim and, rather unconvincingly, a weird model to his fellow inmates.

With his release, the sentimentality that has long been lurking beneath the movie’s acidic surface comes into full bloom. Wilson returns to Shelly, seeking his dog, and the two hit it off. As if his choice of quasi-conventional domesticity weren’t enough, Claire reenters the scene, having abandoned her earlier rebel persona but with a new personal problem to confront. Wilson offers her support, with the result that he mellows even more. One is reluctant to establish any hard-and-fast rules for movies, but if one were inclined to do so, a good candidate might be that any movie that ends with a smiling new-born babe and the family members gushing in unison over the child has become a saccharine wallow.

Harrelson certainly seems to be enjoying playing Wilson. At the same time, he never seems to fully inhabit the character. Of course, any actor would find it difficult to locate the center in a figure constructed completely out of surface tics and calculated verbal flourishes, but Harrelson seems content to coast on his amiable goofiness and refrain from investigating anything deeper. The women who surround him offer great support, with Dern, Greer, Amara, Martindale bringing warmth and Hines an almost brutal shrillness to their characters. Technically the picture is fine, with production designer Ethan Tobman and cinematographer Frederick Elmes joining forces to create a reflection of ordinary America without overdoing it, though Jon Brion’s score can occasionally respond too dead=on to the quirkiness.

One can see what the makers of “Wilson” were aiming for. Unfortunately, it’s also easy to discern how far they end up from their target.