By Elias Savada.
As I watched Personal Shopper, I wondered if this new, mostly English-language film from French filmmaker Olivier Assayas was a Euro thriller or not. I certainly wasn’t on the edge of my seat. The premise in this French-German production is that Maureen Cartwright (Kristen Stewart), a weary, despondent American in Paris, has a boring eponymous job for a high-profile, jet-setting woman named Kyra (Nora Von Waldstätten), a bitch of a boss. Kyra does like her fancy clothes and accessories, and Maureen knows where to find them amongst the numerous haute couture shops she cycles (via too many motor bike shots) through. One caveat: Maureen must never try them on. Forbidden Fruit Syndrome. Plus, she knows she can’t afford them, which makes her life even more miserable. The character has more than a passing resemblance to Valentine, the celebrity’s assistant that Stewart played in Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), her previous collaboration with writer-director Assayas. It won Stewart a well-deserved César award. And while Personal Shopper won the director his first Cannes Film Festival award last year, it was booed following its press screening there.
The other side to Maureen’s monotonous millennial existence does offer up a mild thrill ride (emphasis on mild), and it revolves about her lukewarm paranormal abilities. When she’s not trying to connect with her twin brother Lewis, dead for three months, but apparently trying to send a message from the other world, where- or whatever that might be.
The script offers us that the brother and sister have had a debilitating heart condition which their specialist has followed for years. He recommends the gaunt young woman stay away from any physical overexertion or undue emotional stress. It can kill her, just like it apparently did her sibling. That doesn’t seem to register with Maureen. Would you keep your job shopping for ghosts if it might kill you? And what the fuck does she expect when things start to go bump in the night? A nice stroll in the woods?
Assayas pushes the light, superficial supernatural aspects as the film opens with the standard issue dripping faucet. Twice. Both times the sister is away from the bathtub as the spigot gets turned on. And let’s keep the lights off and have our gal sit in a dark house, with a hand-held camera following her up and down the stairs as she agitatedly mutters to her unseen and unresponsive essence. The histrionics increase as she trolls for a reaction. (Whatever happened to a soothing hot beverage and reading tea leaves?)
Eventually things do start to boil – or rather simmer – up, but not in the sly Blumhouse kind of way. Instead, there’s a slinky art house air of naughtiness and self-playfulness. Occasionally there’s a spectral creepiness, although Maureen’s reaction to this seems more of a bemoaning nature.
There’s also the extended musings emanating from Maureen’s iPhone messaging app, from an “Unknown” sender. Lewis, can you hear me now? There’s a weird joke in there somewhere about our fascination with social media, although my thoughts were why Maureen doesn’t set her iOS system preferences to ignore texts from ghosts, apparitions, and other gamely animals, vegetables, or minerals. Instead, she plays 50 Questions with her unknown admirer and gets, well, emotionally excited. So much for following doctor’s orders.
Among other perplexing sideways movements in the screenplay is an exceedingly talky, make-believe French 1960s movie Victor Hugo à Jersey that helps explain how spirits communicate via a hocus pocus séance. It’s just another silly detour until some Hitchcockian suspense brings some life to the film during its final third.
Is it worth the wait? Well, do you usually pass on the little art films at the local cinema and wait to catch them via video on demand? Then yes, to both questions. Personal Shopper is a ghost story looking for answers, except no one seems to know the questions. Least of all Stewart, who can’t seem to focus her inner turmoil into an effective presence.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).