The HBO / Foxtel / Binge 8 episode film industry satire IRMA VEP is a funhouse of mirrors. It is a remake, by Olivier Assayas, of his own 1996 film, which was in itself a meta-take on the famous 1915 French silent film serial Les Vampires. CJ and Octavia gleefully go down the rabbit hole after viewing the first four episodes of the new show and the 1996 original film.
**** (out of five)
Kristen Stewart is now Olivier Assayas’ muse, and he is now her most important director. They collaborated for the first time on 2014’s excellent Clouds of Sils Maria; Stewart took home the César Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as the personal assistant to a film star played by Juliette Binoche. Now Stewart plays the assistant to another powerful and celebrated European celebrity – not entirely defined, but either a model or a bigwig in fashion – but very much takes the leading role in Personal Shopper. She’s in every scene, and the movie is all about her. It’s her finest performance to date and the film is the equal of Clouds, and up there with Assayas’ best work.
The movie is great value, because it’s at least three films in one: ghost story, American-in-Paris workplace drama and vaguely “Hitchcockian” thriller. We first meet Stewart’s character Maureen (such an intriguing, old-fashioned name for someone so young and hip; Stewart wears it beautifully, and a touch ironically) as she spends the night in a secluded house in order to see if it’s haunted. This scene, played straight – and with a ghost! – seems almost shockingly, literally “genre”; is Assayas really going there? The short answer is, he is, but he’s going other places too, and the movie keeps shifting gears with highly-engineered precision. When Maureen leaves the haunted house and returns to her job, shopping for high-end clothes and jewellery for the aforementioned fashionista, the film slides securely back into territory we’re familiar with from Clouds, and Maureen could almost be Stewart’s character from that movie; it would make sense, to leave Binoche and find a new, younger and more distant boss to service, and, if Assayas had made this a sequel, I would have bought it.
Halfway through, the third element – the thriller – enters the fray, and infects both the exotic workplace and the haunted house. The effect this shift has is electrifying, and the extended sequence on the Eurostar, where Maureen is stalked via text, will be deservedly admired and discussed for years to come. Stewart’s complicated emotional and psychological response to this series of events represents new levels of intimacy and vulnerability in her work, which some critics, in the past, have found cold and remote.
Assayas and his cinematographer Yorick Le Saux shoot Stewart, Eurostar, Paris, Europe, everything magnificently. Nobody shoots daily contemporary urban life like Assayas, with its bustling beauty, havoc and disparity. You don’t necessarily notice the camerawork – it’s not like a Scorsese picture – but the moves and, in particular, the framings are quiet perfection.
I will be telling my filmmaking students to see this movie, not only for its general quality, but specifically to appreciate its approach to ambiguity. Easy answers to any of the film’s threads are not readily apparent by the end credits, yet the whole is immensely satisfying. It is a rich and hearty stew, nourishing for mind and soul.