Personal Shopper is many things. An arthouse film. A showcase for our lead actress. It’s even more than a bit spooky in places. Yet, there’s little to show where exactly it fits in terms of genre. The best context for horror fans would probably be more of a gothic thriller. One where there is most definitely a supernatural presence, but not quite horrific in the more traditional sense. The spectre that haunts our main character even shows up and terrifies her, but we’re never certain of its corporeal state or actions. We’re stuck firmly in the mind of Kristen Stewart for most of the running time, making us question just how much this Personal Shopper is truly experiencing or just fancifully suggesting based on her daily life.
Said life belongs to one Maureen Cartwright (Kristen Stewart), a… well, Personal Shopper. That is, a person who buys clothing and run errands for high profile folks who can’t go out in public without being swamped with people. Maureen lives in Paris, but travels all over Europe trying on and buying rather expensive clothing. Sounds like a cushy existence. Yet, Maureen feels rather unfulfilled and empty. Mainly because her fraternal twin brother Lewis recently died from a heart attack, prompted by a genetic heart condition they both shared. Both siblings also felt a spiritual connection to the afterlife, thinking themselves to be mediums. Maureen spends many nights in her rustic Paris home hearing noises at night, driving her to wander and wonder if Lewis is speaking to her. This is eventually personified by a whispy spirit visiting her, subsequent text conversations with an unknown number and floating objects that make Maureen question her sanity.
So, Personal Shopper clearly isn’t for the average horror fan. Director/writer Olivier Assayas‘ film is slow and ponderous. Many of the narrative threads spiral off without warning, mainly being separated by seemingly endless fades to black. Personal Shopper has as much of a traditional narrative structure as the ghosts featured have a visible solid form to them. Yet, those concerns of plot don’t seem to matter as much to Assayas as much as building moments of character and tension. There’s a unique sort of intimacy he has with the Maureen character. One that makes most others appear far more vapid and underwhelming within her sleek inner circle. Whether it be her clients or the socialite friends she concerns herself with, they all have rather thin unremarkable personalities to them, which helps to give Maureen more reason to doubt herself as time progresses forward. We mirror her own detachment, making the few moments of genuinely moving conversation all the more engrossing.
This hollow existence is given life through sequences that vary in terms of effect. Both from outward expectation and final result. The scene in Personal Shopper where our ghost first appears isn’t nearly as engaging as one might hope. Despite some effective atmosphere and chilling fright on Kristen Stewart’s face, the ghost itself is rather limp and the actions rather bizarre. Really, the ghost stuff works best when the physical spectre isn’t around. Just the image of a glass floating and breaking is rather unsettling. Same goes for a rather gruesome crime scene that immediately sends realistic unfiltered chills down spines. The simplistic elements work the best for Personal Shopper, giving more of a grounded connection that helps blur the lines between this ghost being real or a hallucination of our lead brought on by intense grief and her own heart problems.
On the other hand, a more surprisingly engaging ones involves Maureen having a lengthy text conversation with an unknown number on her train ride. On the outset, the idea of a cinematic text conversation seems rather dull, especially given how visually uninteresting that would sound. Yet, Personal Shopper manages to capture the anxiety and tension of an intense texting conversation in ways few other films have. The rapid fire messages that leave one with little recourse for response. Lingering questions that give no answer for far too long. Attempting to provide an answer, only to find that the other person already has it and stopping mid-text. It captures the isolated terror in a sea of individuals, also adding to the general disconnected-yet-connected nature of Maureen. There’s a palpable energy going on throughout these scenes, one that translates the paranoia and fear of our lead wonderfully.
Of course, the best asset of Personal Shopper is that lead. Within the horror community (and unfortunately the general public), there’s still so much hate towards Kristen Stewart that feels unjustified. Look, I get it. Twilight was awful. But that isn’t her fault. In a diverse array of other roles in films like Adventureland, Cafe Society or various others outside that franchise, Stewart has proven herself to be a vulnerable and versatile as a talent. Now with Personal Shopper, that emotionally naked sensibility shines through with quiet yet chilling power. A recurring motif is the total emptiness Stewart feels throughout given her vacuous role. She sees herself as a cipher, only being able to express joy and fear by wearing her client’s clothes while they’re away.
The emotionally closed off role she has here plays to Stewart’s strengths. She represents many a modern youth, looking to find her way in the world by unconventional means. Connected to her inner anxieties yet distant from people right under her nose. Her revealing (both emotionally and physically) performance here lays bare a lot of emotion without compromising the naturalism. really allowing her to carry Personal Shopper into something that shakes the boundaries of its glacial style and become something that translates for people. It doesn’t solve the glacial pacing or underwhelming narrative problems, but it makes Personal Shopper far more potentially endearing than one would expect going into a mystery with ghostly apparitions. Then again, most would probably be expecting Scooby Doo, so you’re gonna have a full 180 anyway.
Rating: (3 / 5)