by Philip Price
I wasn't sure how I felt about “Personal Shopper” until I got back to my hotel room after watching it and couldn't shake the feeling I was being followed. There is a weird, distinct feeling to the type of movie “Personal Shopper” is because it doesn't really feel like a movie as we've come to recognize them. Going into the film I had little knowledge as to what it was or what it was about other than the fact it starred Kristen Stewart and came from writer/director Olivier Assayas who also made the highly praised, but befuddling to me “Clouds of Sils Maria” (also starring Stewart). And so, while I was once again compelled to seek out the film due to the rave reviews it was receiving there was never a great sense of what I was getting myself into. While “Personal Shopper” doesn't fit squarely into any one genre it instead handles itself with the fluidity and unpredictability of real life where we simply take things as they come no matter how they might otherwise be classified. This is affirming in the sense that nothing is ever predictable about the film and one legitimately never has a clue where the film could go from one moment to the next, but it also makes the focus feel somewhat sloppy in its execution. Were there a clearer intent from the get-go the film's final moments might have been even more shattering than they already are. While there is plenty to feast on here, plenty of feels and subtle details that add up to something substantial as a whole the project is slighter than I would have initially imagined. Slight in that we never dig too deep into any one of those aforementioned facets that Stewart's Maureen is currently dealing with in her life. The slim script, the film runs a quick and quiet 105 minutes, hops from one point of stress for our protagonist to another-flustering both Maureen and the audience until the more supernatural elements of the script become the overwhelming interest in her life then causing everything else to begin to accentuate this point of conflict in terms of opening her eyes to what she's been searching for. What is it exactly that Maureen is searching for? There could naturally be one of a number of interpretations, but while I can appreciate what “Personal Shopper” does in its challenging of genre and the skill it displays in executing genuine chills it is ultimately more about what it has to say than what it actually says.
Speaking of slight, there is a real guerilla approach to Assayas' style as we are dropped into the film with no context and only a short introduction to Maureen before she is abandoned for the night in this large house, her purpose there unbeknownst to us. And though there is hardly anything to be gleaned from this initial scene the single, kind of gripping factor is that the film exists in a world where people talk about contacting the dead without looking at one another as if they're off their rocker. As we come to learn, this house Maureen is staying in is the one in which her twin brother passed away. The new buyers want to be sure it is free of any spirits and are thus allowing Maureen the opportunity to try and make contact with her brother. This threw me for a loop quite honestly as I didn't expect a film titled “Personal Shopper” to be something of an unconventional ghost story, but that's what it turns out to be. The film methodically layers in details surrounding Maureen's life including who she is, what she does, why she and her brother were so close, and what she needs in order to move past the fact the person she inherently shared everything with is no longer there to lean on. “Personal Shopper” never addresses such questions or purposes for such needs in an outright fashion, but more it suggests the facts and the reasoning's in a number of vague ways. This all is cohesive in a sense that Maureen may or may not be psychologically stable as she is certainly in a fragile emotional state given her twin brother has been dead for less than three months at the time of these events, but it is the double edged sword of Maureen returning to the real world that is both appreciated in the sense the film doesn't get carried away with certain genre elements, but is also detrimental in the way that the moment we step away from this driving narrative that is full of mystery and suspense Assayas derails the momentum he has so expertly and seemingly effortlessly crafted up until that moment.
This leaves the question of what does the titular element in the protagonist’s life matter in what is clearly the more significant aspect of her life? On a very basic level this is how she makes her living, but I highly doubt Assayas made his lead character a personal shopper rather than a grocery store clerk for reasons that amount to little more than he wanted to. We are meant to draw meaning and elicit a certain kind of interpretation. To put it plainly, Maureen goes back and forth between coping and dealing with the repercussions that are plaguing her life as a result of her brother’s untimely death due to a heart condition that she also has and that of a life where she serves as a personal shopper for a fashionista/maybe model/likely C-level celebrity who can't go out on her own as she'll be swarmed by those requesting selfies and the like. This level of the story reeks of superficiality, but there is clearly a point to it all as well. Is it simply to contrast the differences in material needs and stature based on brand as opposed to genuine, real life such as an instance of the death of a close family member? It would seem so until the personal shopping that Maureen does garners more and more screen time. Maureen begins to try on the clothes she is picking out and picking up for her client as if in what feels like an attempt to slip out of her skin and worn-out mentality for a brief time and enjoy the idea of what this lavish, care-free, celebrity for the sake of being famous person lives like. In turn, such segments only serve to beg the question of what exactly is going on and why am I watching Kristen Stewart mope around in attire that costs more than I've made in my entire working career? It is to this that “Personal Shopper” admittedly stumps me. Besides the aforementioned fact that Maureen is more or less leading this double life-her profession a last ditch effort to grasp at superficial straws to distract her from the ugliness of the real world-it is a choice that feels so subjective as to how different individuals might draw a correlation that I'd likely be open to a number of theories. What does seem to be of a universal idea is that there is ugliness and sadness in the world everywhere-even in those who look the prettiest and seem the happiest.
“Personal Shopper” is a film I can't imagine one enjoying immediately, but rather it is an exercise in allowing the elements to grow on you and seeing if they compile in a way that either affects you on a basic human level or leave you bewildered by virtue of its vague and scattershot approach to such a story that deals in ghosts. No matter where one might come down on the film though, the thing most clear is that “Personal Shopper” makes waiting on a text message or a reply to a text message something of pure suspense that is then ratcheted up with tension due to the nature of the texts we see exchanged. The obvious question of who they are coming from never feels as pressing as what they could mean or how Maureen should maybe consider them in relation to her mental state. this is critical to understanding what, at the very least, Assayas wants the audience to take away from the experience; that it's not just our memories that will inform how we continue to perceive, learn about, and gauge the world around us, but how we construct those memories and the reflections of what are not actual ghosts, but our own personal demons. Personal Shopper is a film full of allegory and how we can run away from such demons or face them head on, but even in stating that I feel I might be somewhat off from how the other person in the theater might have interpreted what they saw. I won't pretend Stewart blew me away with her performance here. She was fine as was the rest of the small cast, but what is easily the biggest star of “Personal Shopper” is that of how Assayas lends his small-scale, soul-searching project a way to relay to the audience how to evaluate your own priorities and ideas of importance while simultaneously being freaked out by the capabilities of modern technology.