In the span of an hour and 45 minutes, Personal Shopper shifts tones from haunted-house story to erotic thriller to character study to travel video, while sneaking in an art documentary and a History Channel dramatization in there somewhere.
As you can imagine, this mishmash of genres doesn’t always work to its advantage, and it definitely makes the film feel polarizing and distant. That’s not to say it’s a bad movie, which is what’s strange. The ending of Personal Shopper is ambiguous, but it’s not the open-endedness that is confusing. The real question here is how a film can attempt to be so many things, fail at most of them, and still manage to be pretty good.
The answer may be Kristen Stewart, in a role written for her by director Olivier Assayas after the two clicked working on 2015’s Clouds of Sils Maria. Here, Stewart plays Maureen Cartwright, a young American woman living in Paris and working as a personal shopper and assistant to a famous fashion model. But, like many millennials, Maureen’s primary interest is in her side job—working as a medium and attempting to contact the spirit of her deceased twin brother. Exploring his old house, Maureen makes contact with a presence which is not her brother. She then begins to receive anonymous communications from a mysterious stranger which both threaten and entice her, without knowing if they are even coming from this spiritual realm.
That sentence makes the “mysterious communications” sound much more interesting than they actually are.
In reality, the movie shifts to a subplot that involves an excruciating amount of time spent watching Kristen Stewart type into her iPhone. The texting subplot isn’t as captivating as the film seems to think it is, and yet it becomes the driving narrative for the film’s entire second act. When she’s not using her phone to text the mysterious stranger, Maureen—and the audience—is watching old documentaries and made-for-TV movies about communicating with the dead. It’s very nice that these breaks allow Assayas to try different directorial styles, but if they pay off in the story at all, they do so in a manner so subtle that I didn’t see it.
But the narrative missteps are almost forgivable filler to the ghost story that’s at the heart of Personal Shopper. While this new force interferes directly with Maureen’s life, we’re still granted some genuinely unsettling and interesting moments revolving around the other forces indirectly orbiting her. These are the films best moments, the ideas laden in ambiguity, the small and subtle questions. Stewart is perfect here, because her aloof nature and insecurity feel completely natural. Nothing about her is unbelievable, nothing feels manufactured, and that makes Maureen seem particularly vulnerable to the possible insidious forces nearby.
I don’t particularly know whether I actually enjoyed Personal Shopper and yet I feel compelled to see it again. It has a great deal in common with Denis Villeneuve’s 2013 film Enemy, including a recurring theme of secret hotel room meetings. Like Enemy, it feels unfair to give Personal Shopper a rating when I don’t think I understood it, but at the same time, that’s the film’s fault, not mine. What I do know is that after the first act, the good moments of Personal Shopper come few and far between, with a whole lot of filler sandwiching them. But when they do arrive, they hit, and they linger long after the scene is over. Which is good, because that’s the only way to tide you over until the next interesting scene happens.
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