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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Personal Shopper is a multi-layered movie-going treat; it’s a fascinating, thoughtful story that takes unexpected turns while on its way to a haunting conclusion.

An American in Paris

Kristen Stewart is a personal shopper
Kristen Stewart is a personal shopper

The latest movie from writer/director Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours) has a terrific storytelling sensibility that layers on observations about art, fashion and the human condition. At its core are a fantastic, well-developed central character and a ghost story that’s less about the jolts and more about the soul.

Kristen Stewart — famous for her star turn in the Twilight saga — returns to the art house world that’s setting her apart as an actress in recovery from the hype of the young adult movie series phenomenon. She’s worked with Assayas before, on Clouds of Sils Maria, and there’s a comfort level in their collaboration that frees her to take chances.

Here, Kristen plays Maureen, a woman living in Paris and dealing with a handful of challenges.

First, there’s her soul-sucking day job. As the movie’s title implies, she’s a personal shopper for a high-end fashion model. That means she gets to visit chic fashion boutiques and pick up the latest in designer duds, shoes, dresses and accessories. Nice, expensive accessories from Cartier.

Unfortunately, the model is a monster. Beautiful on the outside, but pretty heinous on the inside. Don’t be fooled by that tree-hugging exterior persona pontificating on the importance of gorilla welfare.

Sign Language

In many respects, though, that day job is a mere inconvenience. It’s a device to get the bills paid while Maureen pursues her real passion by night.

She’s a medium. A ghosthunter, like her recently deceased twin brother. She doesn’t rely on all the gadgetry seen on all those reality shows — she doesn’t weigh herself down with EMF meters, EVP recorders, IR lights or thermal cameras. She goes with the feeling.

And she’s waiting. For a sign. From her brother.

They had an agreement he’d communicate with her from the ever-after.

In the meantime, Maureen’s also contending with the same heart condition that took her brother’s life. As the movie begins, it’s clear Maureen doesn’t sleep much. She’s got bags under her eyes and a lot on her mind.

Art of Life

Contending with the personal shopper and ghosthunter storylines makes for a busy dance card, but Assayas does such a marvelous job of using those elements as merely a foundation upon which to build an enriching experience of ideas.

Personal Shopper is a slick blending of fact and fiction, a creative work that artfully inserts the influences of other artists.

Fact: There really was a Hilma af Klint.

Hilma who? Well, she was an abstract painter before abstract painting was a “thing.” She died — at 81 — in 1944 and requested her art not be exhibited for 20 years after her death.

Hilma, by the way, was into the occult. And she’s a hook by which Assayas seamlessly weaves theosophy and spiritualism.

Alternative fact: There’s an intentionally cheesy movie within this movie about Victor Hugo’s time in Jersey. Hugo really did live there for a spell, but it’s not a real movie from the 1960s. It was concocted for Personal Shopper to further develop the theme of spiritualism — a pursuit of Arthur Conan Doyle and arguably the progenitor of abstract photography. In the movie, Victor Hugo participates in a séance.

And so it is Assayas moves Maureen forward in her spiritual journey by way of Hilma af Klint and Victor Hugo.

Maybe Maureen — a woman who needs to avoid extreme physical exertion and heightened emotions — wants to live somebody else’s life. But as Kyra, the friendless beauty, demonstrates, the grass isn’t always greener where there’s money and glamor.

Personal Shopper is a movie about the power of art — and so many other things — that itself stands as a solid work of art.