While labeled by some critics as a horror film, Personal Shopper is every bit a psychological thriller, one which generates a fair amount of tension but will also prove to be a bit too ambiguous and lax for mainstream audiences. Written and directed by French filmmaker Oliver Assayas (who shared the Best Director award at Cannes last year), reunites with muse Kristen Stewart after the critical success of Clouds of Sils Maria. That previous collaboration proved to be so rewarding that Stewart became the first American actress to win a César award—the French equivalent of the Oscars. In Personal Shopper, Stewart plays Maureen Cartwright, a young fashion assistant and “personal shopper” to a high-profile celebrity in Paris. Maureen's twin brother Lewis (who was some kind of medium), has just died from a genetic heart defect, and Stewart attempts to absorb her brother's spirit by making sporadic trips to the house where he died to see if she harbors the same kind of paranormal connections. Maureen isn't a very content person as she rarely smiles, smokes on a regular basis, despises her boss with a passion...all the while dealing with not only her personal grief but also an unknown stalker who will not cease sending texts to her phone.
If it wasn't for the fact that Personal Shopper was given the Criterion treatment, I probably never would have bothered although that's not because of the star, who evidently has been enjoying her post-Twilight career with a string of acclaimed performances in quiet indies. Before Personal Shopper, the only film in which I saw Stewart in was Still Alice, although that film belonged entirely to her onscreen mother Julianne Moore, who won the Best Actress Oscar. Stewart got almost unanimous praise as the reserved Maureen, and the truth is I'm not quite convinced she is as brilliant as the French have been hailing...although admittedly I still haven't seen Clouds of Sils Maria but plan to soon. As in Still Alice, Stewart is very good here, and she definitely has many moments to shine although at other times she seems rather inert and lifeless. Honestly, I found it extremely difficult to care about her character (and share her grief, for that matter) because she's not particularly likable or interesting as a person even though I completely understood her dilemma and situation. It also doesn't help that her motivations are often frustratingly muddy, especially when it comes to engaging in often pointless conversation with her weird stalker who texts at unbelievably lightning speed. Stewart herself is fine; I just wish her character had been a bit more compelling and dimensional, and it just seems like the actress is coasting in a role that feels too safe, too distant, and ultimately too zombie-like for her own good. (For those who care, Stewart also strips nude several times and even masturbates in one scene, which adds nothing to her character regardless of what Assayas or Criterion may argue.)
It also doesn't help that Assayas seems to be too obsessed with expensive couture and iPhone communication (complete with a fair amount of songs sung in such languages as Swedish and Spanish) to allow the viewer to relish the ghost story. There are moments of quiet dread which are so delicately executed they raise the neck hairs more often than not, particularly when we are inside the home and in the film's third act which was so masterful and mesmerizing it almost makes up for the fact that the protagonist is such a walking,stone-faced cipher much of the time with few, if any, qualities to support the story in which Assayas is attempting to tell. While it was understandably an artistic choice, I found the numerous fade-outs more annoying than effective, and the mundane texting sequences—which struggle to build suspense no matter how hard the script tries—generate absolutely nothing but, literally, dead air. There's no question that Personal Shopper is moodily evocative and beautifully filmed, with a committed actress who is giving her all (?), it just doesn't add up to much of anything, at least for me. Granted, this is the first of Olivier Assays' films I've watched and those who are more familiar with his resume will no doubt emphasize that I need to check out some of his other films to gain greater appreciation, and that is why I'm looking forward to giving him another chance with Clouds of Sils Maria, which was also distributed by Criterion and features two other actresses I love.
- BLU-RAY SPECS & EXTRAS -
While Personal Shopper doesn't quite click for me in terms of both the film as a whole as well as Stewart's performance, Criterion delivers another exquisite Blu-ray which is impossible to criticize. As the supplementary booklet states, the film is presented in the original aspect ratio of 2.40:1 and the 1080p transfer in 2K resolution supervised by director of photography Yorick Le Saux and approved by Olivier Assayas is simply flawless. The 5.1 surround digital soundtrack is equally kosher, with the ghost effects and natural sounds particularly pleasing to the ears; English-speaking audiences will be pleased to know the majority of dialogue in their language although there is some French as well, complete with automatic subtitles. Special features begin with a 17-minute interview with the director where he talks about the inspiration for the screenplay and fleshes out Maureen a bit more with regards to her loneliness and attitudes on fashion. Assayas comes off as incredibly appealing and astute, clearly fascinated with the themes he writes about; this is an excellent interview which has fueled mydesire to see more of his films rather than dismissing him merely because of my initial disappointment. Less stimulating is the full 46-minute press conference done at Cannes shortly after Assayas won the Best Director prize, joined by Stewart, fellow actors Lars Eidinger & Sigrid Bouaziz and producer Charles Gillibert. Like the supplemental essay found in the insert leaflet (“Freedom 2016” by Glenn Kenny), there is plenty of insight to gain particularly if you loved Personal Shopper; while I'm definitely not alone in not loving the film, I wouldn't have joined the audience members who were BOOING at the end of the Cannes screening. One striking aspect is that Kristen Stewart seemed curiously unable to answer any questions without continuously going into “um” and “uh” territories, which again makes me question if she had a full grasp on who Maureen was and her motivations.
Considering its French, art-house aesthetic and its strange mixing of various themes, Personal Shopper is most certainly not for all tastes and will prove to be a challenge to those who prefer by-the-numbers stories and connect-the- dots plots which are the Hollywood norm. As for myself, I couldn't be any more lukewarm or middle-in- the-road in recommending Personal Shopper as I can see it boring some people to death while enlightening others to the nth degree. If you do commit to the challenge, however, then Criterion's Blu-ray is truly the way to go as the technical qualities provides plenty for the eyes and ears, while the extras provide plenty for the mind. I can't see myself returning to Personal Shopper ever again as there was was just a little too much of nothing even though I dig ambiguity, but will be checking out Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria with an equally open, yet rebooted, perspective.
- ABOUT THE AUTHOR -
Stone Gasman has been addicted to cinema ever since he was a child, becoming hooked on Chaplin, Hitchcock and Wilder by the time he was 10 years old. The film which changed his life was The Best Years of Our Lives, the 1946 winner for Best Picture and eight additional Oscars, which ultimately inspired him to join the US Navy. He is now a disabled veteran residing in New York City.