Movie Review: Personal Shopper

Kristen Stewart stars in a hard to classify supernatural film set in Paris

The French have always excelled in rather ponderous art films, often set in a vision of Paris where nobody seems to have a proper job. Personal Shopper, an English language film by written and directed by Olivier Assayas, takes a good bit of influence from those classic New Wave films and adds some modern elements like a CGI ghost to create a truly unclassifiable film that works in fits and starts but in the end is unsatisfying.

The film has been well-received, though, and Assayas shared the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival, where it played in competition. The film was also reportedly booed by much of the audience, while others stood up to applaud.

Kristen Stewart, who stars in the title role, won Best Actress at the Oaxaca FilmFest. While most of the film was shot in Paris, a few scenes were filmed in the Czech Republic including the haunted house sequences and a photo shoot.

The basic premise is that Maureen (played by Kristen Stewart) is a medium, someone in touch with the “other world.” She is looking for some sign of something at this one large house. The reason is revealed rather slowly, although the coming attraction trailers all contain spoilers about it. (They also misrepresent the film, so if you haven't seen the trailers it is best to avoid them.)

The ghost story plot gets dropped and picked up again throughout the film. Maureen is also the personal shopper for a high-profile woman who is often photographed for celebrity pages in magazines. Maureen spends most of her time going to designers to borrow clothing and accessories so her boss can look good and the designers can get free publicity. She rides around Paris on a motor scooter, and seems to be the successor to the sort of lost American woman in Paris that was introduced in Jean-Luc Godard's 1960 classic Breathless, played by Jean Seberg.

Maureen gets paid in cash and seems to have no ambitions, and lets herself get thrown around by the forces of fate. This plot is potentially more interesting than the ghost story, but it remains rather undeveloped.

After a brief break of seeing Maureen doing her shopping job and negotiating with designers, the film not only gets back onto the haunted house plot, but throws in a crime mystery and a rather bizarre cyberstalking storyline. Maureen's behavior grows increasingly inexplicable.

The result is an odd stew of seemingly stray plot ideas and CGI spectral effects that can't really be classified as belonging firmly in any particular genre. It has the feel of several unfinished scripts stitched together.

There is an odd fascination in watching the film. The lack of any normal plot development serves to disorient the viewer out of their cinematic safety zone, as virtually anything could happen. It is like being on a bus that takes a detour from its route and gets further and further off course, yet you stay on anyway to see where it is headed, only to find yourself in the middle of nowhere at the end of the ride, and with no way to get back to where you wanted to go.

Kristen Stewart is a bit lackluster in the lead, not showing a lot of emotion and always looking like she just woke up after a rough night of sleep and grabbed the closest pieces of clothing off the floor. She is supposed to be a medium that connects with the supernatural, yet she doesn't manage to connect with the audience. The film would have worked better if the lead was more charismatic. But keeping the audience at a distance may be what the director wanted.

The supporting cast is also a but underdeveloped. The person Maureen shops for is almost never seen. Maureen's friends turn up a few times to try to kickstart the plot, but the dialogue is a bit on the contrived side. Nobody raises any questions over Maureen's claimed powers as a medium, instead they point her in odd directions so she can waste her time on her smartphone researching other claimed clairvoyants.

The spectral ghost effects are the weakest part, and the film would have been better if the CGI images were left out. They simply aren't convincing enough, and are more distracting than frightening.

But writer-director Olivier Assayas for the most part succeeded in what he wanted to do, create a new type of ghost story that fully rejects the genre conventions. It is hard to even classify personal shopper as a horror film, as there are so few scares in it. It isn't really a crime drama, either, though that plot at least makes some sense. And as a character study of a young expat woman adrift in the City of Light, the character remains to aloof and enigmatic.

If Assayas wanted to reject all of the conventions of the most popular genres at one deft go, he succeeded. 

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