Ever wanted to watch Kristen Stewart fidgeting with her hair while sending text messages? Secretly keen to watch YouTube videos about Victor Hugo on someone else’s iPhone? ‘Personal Shopper’ is the film for you. Craving a thoughtful addition to modern slow-burning haunted house films such as Alejandro Amenábar’s ‘The Others’ or Ti West’s ‘The Innkeepers’? Then look somewhere else. In fact, go and watch those two, they're great films!
As a filmmaker, Olivier Assayas (‘Irma Vep’, ‘Something in the Air’, ‘Carlos’) has never been interested in basic genre-movie standards, and ‘Personal Shopper’ is an almost impossible film to pin down. It is a realist drama about loss and identity, as well as a psychological thriller. It’s also a ghost story, complete with a computer-animated, ectoplasm-vomiting spook straight out of the New York City Public Library in ‘Ghostbusters’.
Maureen (Kristen Stewart, in her second collaboration with Assayas after her Cesar-winning turn in the masterful ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’) is a young American in Paris, a personal shopper and assistant to a German fashionista, Kyra (another Assayas regular, Nora Von Waltstätten). In her free time, she is a psychic medium seeking to connect with her twin brother Lewis’ ghost in a crumbling Parisian country house. Maureen is also a young woman searching for her own identity, with a congenital heart condition triggered by extremes of emotion or exertion. She is haunted, figuratively, and later in the film, literally.
Whew! If you couldn't tell by the synopsis, this movie is a combination of many, many different styles, tones, and events. It shifts back, forth, left, right, up, down, northwest, southwest, and any other direction you could possibly think of. ‘Personal Shopper’ is a minimalist, meandering and sporadically gripping mess.
The plotting of the first half hour of the film is directionless. Maureen wanders around a dark house, softly calling to her brother. A floorboard squeaks. We watch Maureen ride her motorcycle from one haute couture designer’s outlet to the next. She isn’t allowed to try on the clothes. There is a supernatural confrontation. Over an excruciatingly long 20-minute sequence, text messages are exchanged between Maureen and what could either be a digital stalker or an angry ghost. We watch Maureen as she watches YouTube... a lot. There's even a late addition murder mystery that unfolds just so there can be more fucking texting... which is then abruptly discarded, dragging the audience back into phantasmagorical territory. The audience’s patience is tested, repeatedly, as the film throws a bunch of ideas against the wall and none of them really stick.
We watch Maureen as she watches YouTube... a lot.
Kristen Stewart is essentially a one-woman show, the only character in the story explored in real depth, and acquits herself admirably. With her slicked-back hair, puffy eyes, pinched features and wan good looks, she projects an unusual sexual energy. There is much wrinkling of the brow and many halting philosophical musings between Maureen and her European friends, with topics ranging from French existentialism to the works of abstract painter Hilma af Klint and French novelist Victor Hugo. Stewart’s naturalistic line readings give her dialogue a rambling, improvisational feel.
Director Assayas makes good use of his roving camera, moving through space and building tension with simple steadycam pans. The camera tracks Maureen, spectre-like, around Lewis’ dilapidated country house and Kyra’s Paris apartment, occasionally drinking in some European scenery. The parts that are most viscerally effective are ironically the most mundane: elongated segments of driving through busy city streets, silent walks through creaky houses, characters holding dogs back from open front yard gates. All moments where we get to see Kristen Stewart's real, actual expressions, before the camera obfuscates their meaning like a cat covering up their litter box.
Ultimately, despite some genuinely good acting from Kristen Stewart, ‘Personal Shopper’ is hamstrung by its own listless pacing, an inability to draw the disparate elements of its plot together in a satisfying way, and a conclusion that leaves the audience seeking explanations for a film full of strange occurrences.