This is a reprint of our review from the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.
There are, at a conservative count, four different movies inside Olivier Assayas‘ new film, led by his “Clouds of Sils Maria” star Kristen Stewart, and two of them might even be quite good. There’s the full blown ghost story, complete with creaking floorboard, haunted house, CG-phantasms-hanging-out-of-chandeliers-spewing-ectoplasm, which is unexpected. There’s the straight-up grief movie, in which a twin mourns the recent death of her brother while the others in his life circle around her anxiously, which is promising but underdeveloped. There’s the Brian De Palma-esque elaborate and illogical murder mystery with added modern tech aspects (texting), which is twaddle. And there’s the fashion industry/celebrity satire part which is a lot of fun, because we get to see Kristen Stewart topless and trying things on, looking at jewelery, sneaking a go in her employer’s haute couture, forking over thousands for perfectly unremarkable handbags and generally purchasing the clothes that, at least half the time with “Personal Shopper,” the emperor isn’t wearing.
The issue is that none of these strands is really substantial enough to stand alone. And so despite some evocatively spooky work in the haunted house that opens the film (really it seems for a while like Assayas was punking us all with the title and the advance description, and actually was going to turn in a Stewart-starring remake of “The Awakening” or somesuch), and the deliciously offhand, authentic-feeling scenes in the high-end boutiques of London and Paris, the film otherwise really only comes alive in the spaces where two or more of these separate themes overlap. When it’s about a disaffected young American woman in mourning, working a vacuous Paris job in high fashion, it’s touching; when it’s a parable about grief and ghosts, it’s even stronger. Sometimes in those moments, Assayas gets dangerously close to making a bittersweet but generous point about the fear of letting go, and the guilt of moving on, and how they might haunt us as literally as any phantom. But far more often, we’re reading a faux-mysterious, but actually just damn silly text conversation off the screen of an iPhone, or stumbling across a murder that turns out to have nothing much to do with anything.
About three months after the death of her twin, Lewis, Paris-based Maureen (Stewart) is working as a personal shopper for a demanding celebrity whom she despises, while, as she repeatedly mentions, “waiting.” It transpires that what she is waiting for is a sign from Lewis from the afterlife, but the oddly believable notion that she and her twin might have agreed in advance of his early death to try to contact each other from beyond the veil is undercut and rather needlessly complicated by the revelation that both Lewis and Maureen were/are spirit mediums. Quite what the parameters of her supernatural skillset are is never made clear, but Maureen is in a holding pattern, working by day and visiting Lewis’ creaky old house by night in an attempt to experience that elusive connection.
But then things start to unravel in uncanny and often annoyingly unconnected ways. Maureen is contacted by an unknown caller via text on her phone and, apparently hoping it might be her dead brother, she responds. But the texts — of which “no desire if not forbidden” and “what you find unsettling is fear” are just a couple of wha? examples — become progressively more aggressive and demanding (shades of “Vertigo” at one point) and then turn out to be part of a different sinister plot that leads to a bloody murder and a potential frame-up. Oh, and one final potboilery element — Maureen has the same heart condition that killed her brother and is therefore supposed to “avoid intense effort and extreme emotions,” so it’s not impossible that she has dropped dead at any number of junctures in the film and the rest of her story is an afterlife hallucination.
Overall deeply unsatisfying, it is however peculiarly watchable from moment to moment, and in that and several other ways “Personal Shopper” represents an improvement on the bafflingly overpraised ‘Sils Maria.’ The second-language dialogue problems are not nearly so in evidence here, even if certain lines, especially dealing with the internet, sound like someone trying to sound au fait with modern tech. “If you search under ‘Victor Hugo’ and ‘Jersey’ and ‘Seance’ on YouTube you’ll find it” a friend trills at Maureen with improbable exactitude (incidentally that is followed by the clip in question, “Victor Hugo in Jersey” which is reminiscent of Chloe Moretz ‘s movies-within-the-movie in ‘Sils Maria’ and just as unedifying). Similarly, Maureen’s nonentity boyfriend who is abroad for work in some Emirate or other seems oddly insistent on using their limited Skype time to confirm that he’s “configuring the program” and “establishing the security protocols” and other such mumbo-jumbo.
It is genuinely difficult to work out how much of “Personal Shopper” is meant to be trashy and kind of dumb, and how much ends up there accidentally. Stewart, meanwhile, is a very fine actress and getting better every day, but even she seems at times palpably uncomfortable with, or maybe just exhausted by, the psychological contortions required of her character. The result is a performance that is always charismatic, but sometimes feels affected — the stutters, the tics — in contrast to her superb turn in ‘Sils Maria,’ which was so great because in amongst all of that film’s affectations and artificiality, Stewart was a breath of naturalistic fresh air.
“Personal Shopper” is a mess — not an uninteresting one, and better that than a staid, unadventurous bore, but a mess nonetheless. And it ramps up to a climax that had viewers in the Cannes press screening visibly perplexed, even angry, prompting boos. That’s an odd reaction, though, because that dose of mid-air ambiguity at the close, and its abrupt cut to white on a hysterically nonsense line of dialogue, is perhaps its single least aggravating moment if you haven’t been supping on the Kool-Aid till then. Maureen has spent the whole film waiting and searching in the oddest places for meaning, connection and resolution which never come, and so the film is its most honest self when, once and for all, it denies the watching audience the same closure. [C+]