Olivier Assayas has returned for the first time since his brilliant 2014 film The Clouds of Sils Maria with his latest effort: Personal Shopper. He has once again collaborated with the ever-underappreciated Kristen Stewart, who stars here as a young medium attempting to make contact with her deceased brother while working as a personal shopper for a celebrity in Paris. Though she hates the job, she is so stricken with grief that she refuses to leave Paris until she feels that she has completed her mission and gotten confirmation that her brother is at peace.
Stewart’s performance in this film is, as usual, fantastic. She seems to have a firm grasp on the nuances of the character, who happens to be a very unusual girl named Maureen. Maureen is a risk taker who ultimately seems obsessed with fear. She puts on a brave face and charges into unknown situations, but when faced with a truly horrific situation, she retreats to her most animalistic flight instincts. All of her relationships suffer as a result of her grief. She seems to feel that her connection with her brother is so deep, that his death has severed part of her own being.
Still, a performance can only be as good as its script allows it to be, and for Personal Shopper, things get a little messy. Assayas, who wrote and directed, seemed to be unsure of what exactly he wanted the film to be. If a film were only the sum of its parts, this one could be a masterpiece. Individual scenes are tense, nerve-wracking, and compellingly constructed. However, as a whole work it is simply missing something. It seems to lack a fluidity in either plot or genre as it fluctuates wildly between a personal drama, a horror movie, and a psychological thriller. These elements could theoretically be tied together in a cohesive way, but they don’t seem to find that path here.
Personal Shopper may have actually benefited if it had been significantly longer. If the film had clocked in closer to two and a half hours, it might’ve been able to provide the necessary backstory to make the dynamic between Maureen and her deceased brother a little richer and more believable. Instead, the audience is left to simply accept the nature of their relationship and the fact that they are both “mediums” (with no real explanation of what that ability entails for them). In addition, there is a mysterious and intriguing crime plot line running through the film and Assayas intentionally muddles the elements of this crime with Maureen’s supernatural experiences. However, the conclusion of this thread provides little closure or explanation. It simply ends in a relatively unsatisfying manner that makes the viewer wonder what the purpose of it was other than to provide some more intrigue to fuel Maureen’s paranoia.
The supernatural elements of the film are another major problem here. Put simply, they make little sense. Assayas provides plenty of evidence to believe that something supernatural is truly occurring. He creates a haunting world occupied by spirits, and we suspend disbelief willingly. These moments create some of the film’s most exciting and tense scenes. However, the final moments of Personal Shopper seem to betray the whole concept. Though it’s a powerful finale, on reflection it really makes little sense in the context of the plot. Certainly this isn’t a film that begs to make complete sense, but at certain points it seemed less intentionally ambiguous and more lazy.
I have ultimately been very conflicted in respect of how to grade this film. On the one hand, as I’ve described, the plot was sloppy and ultimately told two half-baked stories rather than one cohesive one. On the other, it is still filled with intriguing moments. It is beautifully acted and certain stretches in this film were completely immersive and breathtaking. The brilliance that lead to this film’s conception can be seen clearly throughout, it just never comes together to create something exciting and memorable. Personal Shopper as a whole has mostly left my thoughts in the short time since I saw it, however individual scenes have stayed firmly in my mind. It is for this reason that I still regard Personal Shopper as an interesting achievement, but one that ultimately left me wanting more.
I was lukewarm to it initially. Couldn’t get it out of my head and wanted to see what I missed. It’s now among my very favorite films of the year. A fascinating, unconventional, puzzle box of a film. And if watched through the prism of Stewart’s grieving character. It makes a lot more sense. The tonal clashes are intentional.