IN SELECTED CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 105 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Maureen is a young woman who lives in Paris. Her job is to buy clothes and jewellery for Kyra, a celebrity she rarely sees, while her relationship with her boyfriend Gary seems to be conducted via Skype and she doesn’t seem to want to even go on that very much. She spends much of her time alone, emotionally consumed by a sibling pact made with her now deceased brother where the first to die [both of them being burdened with a terminal heart malformation] would contact the other from whatever lies beyond the grave, if anything does at all. Maureen thinks she sees signs of her brother, at the same time as she begins to get mysterious messages on her phone from an unknown number….
It doesn’t seem that long ago when the Twilight pictures were coming out [yep, I saw all of them, proving that I really was a glutton for punishment], one of the many bad things about those films being the really shoddy acting by the main three cast members. In the case of Kristen Stewart it was a bit of a surprise as she’d already been a capable child actor. However, things have changed substantially since then. Robert Pattinson has proved himself as a performer, and Stewart has become – and there was a time when I never would have thought I’d write this in a million years – one of the best young actresses around. Of course this could partly be because she’s someone who has to be given good material otherwise she struggles, though to be honest Personal Shopper, while it does have some things to recommend it, is a film I would say is possibly more “interesting” than “good”. Apparently it was met with both applause and boos at its Cannes showing, and it’s easy to see why. Only sometimes becoming the spine chiller its premise suggests, it has a haunting [and I don’t just mean the bits with the ghosts], melancholic feel for much of the time, and at times it’s a very astute portrayal of grief, but it totally lacks cohesion, sometimes feeling like portions of several different films involving the same main character cut rather randomly together, though this does also that it’s hard to often tell where the film’s going – and that’s certainly a good thing. And there are some very effective moments.
Writer/director Olivier Assayas, in his second collaboration with Stewart, certainly doesn’t make it easy for the viewer to get into his story, choosing to jump straight in and then gradually fill us in for the next 20 minutes or so. The opening scene is in very cliched haunted building movie fashion as we have a lone woman in a house at night with footsteps, creaking doors, and so forth, and I can see many horror fans being disappointed that the film doesn’t continue much in this fashion except for a second night spent in the same house, so the best thing for the viewer to do is not to really approach the film as one. It’s soon revealed that the house was where her recently deceased brother Lewis lived and Maureen, who’s convinced she’s a medium, is hoping he’ll contact her. And the second night does reveal some whispy ghosts, unfortunately done with CGI but looking reasonably okay and like they’ve come from the 1980’s or earlier. A spectral woman vomiting some ectoplasm is actually a little unnerving. Unfortunately none of these spooks appear to be Lewis, so Maureen goes back to living with Lewis’s sister Lara, though she spends most of her time on the move due to her job. As she jets back and forth from Paris to London, and walks from shop to shop, she’s constantly doleful, avoids the company of others, and doesn’t even answer her boyfriend Gary’s Skype calls. She’s more interested in watching videos about abstract painter Hilma af Klimt and French novelist Victor Hugo, who both communed with the spiritual world. She doesn’t even seem to be noticed much by the people around here, which means that – in one of the film’s nicest touches – she’s virtually a ghost herself.
We’re never exactly told what her employer Kyra does for a living, but I would guess model. In the one moment when Maureen actually seems to want to interact with another living soul [rather than a dead one], she can’t get to actually talk to Kyra because she’s in her bedroom having several lengthy telephone conversations at once. Kyra’s boyfriend Ingo also wants to talk to her, and he has very good reasons [he’s just been dumped and wants to persuade Kyra to change her mind], but he’s left waiting for ages too. By now the ghost plot has virtually vanished, although when Maureen then starts to get texts from someone who seems to always know where she is, there does seem to be the vague possibility of the texter being supernatural. In one exchange, Maureen claims a dislike of horror movies because they feature “women running away and hiding from killers,” which isn’t the only place in the film where Assayas demonstrate a rather snobby attitude to the horror genre. In any case, the messaging goes on forever and, while at times surprisingly suspenseful, and eventually climaxing with a genuinely frightening moment when a quick series of texts to Maureen reveal the sender getting closer and closer to her, has a bit too much screen time devoted to this, it often coming across as a screen version of those situations most of us have been in when we’re with somebody who just won’t be parted from their damn phone. And then there’s a murder.
Personal Shopper, despite its fairly slow pace, is never less than interesting. But it also feels like a film in which the writer wasn’t entirely sure where his story was going, and tonally it’s all over the place as we seem to be almost watching highlights from two or three quite different films in one. Assayas obviously had trouble concluding matters too, ending his film in the most frustrating manner with a character asking a question and little sense of closure. I wasn’t requiring a big happy ending – that would probably have been wrong with this film – but I felt I had the right to expect more than I got. It’s nice when a movie leaves some things that are unexplained, and it’s positively a bonus in pictures of the surreal kind, but Assayas rather overdoes it in this movie, diminishing the seemingly central theme of grief along the way, and one is left with the sense that he just couldn’t be bothered to finish the final portion of his screenplay, even though that was probably not the case. It also means that some of the earlier things that occur in the story have little point to them, an example of this being those ghosts I described earlier. The ectoplasm spewing ghost is never explained, unless we’re supposed to wonder if it’s all happening in Maureen’s head and she’s going a little mad. All that texting I talked about? It serves absolutely no purpose to the plot. There’s a scene where the texter persuades Maureen to fulfil her desire to try on Kyra’s clothes, and I guess it’s important because Maureen actually starts to live a little here, but the texting wasn’t really needed at all. And why does nobody seem to be bothered or surprised by the fact that this girl is seeing full ghosts? Personal Shopper is just infuriating at times, and yet I cannot deny that I was still absorbed in what was taking place on screen.
Evening Paris streets are evocatively photographed by cinematographer Yorick Le Saux with the same feeling that he brought to Detroit and Tangiers in Only Lovers Left Alive, though Assayas’s liking for suddenly cutting from or fading out in what seems like the middle of a scene becomes rather annoying and only distances one from the goings-ons further. He obviously likes to leave the viewer in mid-air, but after it happened a few times he just left this particular viewer exasperated. I wanted to get caught up in the emotions of the heroine, and the themes of desolation, of dealing with death, of our need for the idea of the supernatural, the commentary on how so many of us today lead a life at arm’s length and rarely properly interact with other people, and so forth. Unfortunately, I felt that Assayas was on a weird kind of mission to prevent me from doing so, and the result was that his film only really worked in bits and pieces.
So thank God for Stewart then, who is probably the best reason to watch this movie, and is required to be almost constantly on screen. Of course the depressed nature of Maureen does play to her strengths, and a great deal of the role just requires her to react, but from an uncomfortable grilling by a policeman to an outpouring of sadness aboard a train, she totally becomes her character and I can’t think of anybody else today who could have played her better, which is the highest compliment I can pay to an actress. Then again, it’s possibly just as well, considering that hardly anybody else really registers – which may have been the idea. Personal Shopping has some fascinating ingredients but just doesn’t come off anywhere near as good as it should, which is all the more of a shame because it had considerable potential. Assayas probably wanted us to ruminate on the concept of an afterlife after his film has finished and we’ve got home from our latest trip to the cinema, but this critic was left ruminating on why a filmmaker would give the impression that he’s trying to sabotage his own film.