Personal Shopper (2016)
Not everyone knows how to react after seeing French critic-turned-filmmaker Olivier Assayas’ latest, Personal Shopper, given that it’s the first film ever to receive a four-and-a-half minute standing ovation at its Cannes premiere right after it was ‘booed’ at the critics screening one day earlier. This differing response might have something to do with the flick’s perplexing vagueness, as its atypical ambiguity doesn’t always work. Part supernatural thriller, part workplace drama and part art house romp, Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper — his follow-up to 2014’s critically acclaimed Clouds of Sils Maria — is bound to frustrate several moviegoers, chiefly those who expect to see a conventional spine-tingling ghost story or those unadventurous males who’ll seek this one out simply to see star Kristen Stewart topless.
With that said, Stewart plays Maureen Cartwright, a self-appointed medium that works as a part-time personal shopper for an internationally renowned model/ actress named Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten). Zipping around a motor scooter in her temporary home of Paris, Maureen spends her days running errands (sometimes even going abroad), gathering (and returning) haute couture frocks and accessories for the glamorous Kyra, who’s basically forbid Maureen from ever trying any of the garments on, even though the ladies essentially have the same body size — with some staff even using Maureen as a mannequin for the gowns. Although the gig offers Maureen very little in the way of personal satisfaction, it’s clear that she’s quite good at her job. This could be because her boss is hardly ever around, which makes it feel as though she’s working for a ghost — someone who’s never there. Or maybe Maureen is the ghost, moving things around in the background, as she’s practically invisible to her employer, Kyra.
The film opens when Stewart’s character arrives at the home of her fraternal twin brother, Lewis, to hold a séance (even if it takes us a while to figure this out). We see our protagonist creep around the eerie Parisian mansion, which Lewis had been renovating with his artist partner Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz) before having passed away, the siblings (both diagnosed with the same congenital heart defect) agreeing that whoever died first would (attempt to) send the other a sign from beyond the grave. After an encounter with a malevolent spirit at the sprawling manor, Maureen receives a strange message in the form of an SMS and quickly enters into a textual relationship that’s much more open than anything she has in reality. As the messages become more and more alarming, Maureen’s desperation to ‘feel something’ sets her on a murky journey that’ll force her to confront death and find her identity.
While certainly engrossing, Personal Shopper is a bit too hazy and tonally distorted for my specific tastes — for one, all the spooky stuff is strange and unsettling but it’s also kinda jarring. Similarly, the murder-mystery storyline starts off frighteningly well but finishes up at an overly predictable destination, the movie concluding with way too many unresolved threads. And don’t even get me started on that baffling final scene in Oman. This isn’t to say that the unorthodox Personal Shopper doesn’t have its virtues — it’s wildly hypnotic, downright scary in parts, and often quite reflective — with Assayas exploring notions of self and spirituality, the film held together by a superlative performance by Kristen Stewart.
Those who still think that Stewart is a limited performer — due to her bland exterior and less-than-stellar depiction of the Twilight saga’s Bella Swan — clearly haven’t seen much of her (post-Twilight) work, including 2014’s Clouds of Sils Maria, which she received the César Award for Best Supporting Actress. Stewart’s role in Personal Shopper is similar to that of Sils Maria, where she played a personal assistant to an actress, but her character is much more complex this time around. Spending the majority of the flick all by her lonesome — whether she’s texting a mysterious stalker or researching videos of French poet and novelist Victor Hugo and abstract painter Hilma af Klint (who’d both apparently communicated with the dead) — Stewart manages to convey a wide range of emotions given her limited amount of dialogue. Stewart also challenges her normcore aesthetic in one of the film’s best scenes, where she spends a night in Kyra’s stylish apartment and tries on one of her sweltering getups, this magnetic transformation showing us the sexy, confident person hidden beneath Maureen’s jittery androgynous shell. Heck, K-Stew is so captivating, I can assure that you won’t want to look away.
While Personal Shopper might be a bit obscure — it’s so unpredictable that it often feels as though you’re watching a number of different movies botched together — it’s clear that Olivier Assayas is more interested in getting viewers to think rather than offering up any concrete answers. So, if you’re looking for a picture that comes together tidily in a neat conclusion, I’d urge you to avoid Personal Shopper completely. If you’re keen to see something a little different and enjoy arty Hitchcockian suspense, Personal Shopper might be right up your ally. I’d say watch it for Kristen Stewart and you won’t be disappointed.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Mr. Movie
Personal Shopper is released through Rialto Distribution
It certainly is a divisive film. Great review even though I cannot share your conclusions. In place of a cohesive narrative, we have ambiguity elevated as an artform in itself. The tired old floating veils, self-levitating objects, and creaky floorboards show little originality; the only fresh contribution to the genre is the iPhone as a ghostly medium. But you are absolutely right about Stewart being outstanding.