Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper is a film about ghostly visitations and the dreadful vanity of the Parisian elite. With that basic logline, its worst crime should by all rights be over-schlockiness or over-silliness. Instead, bafflingly, the grave offense that Personal Shopper commits is that it is boring. Jaggedly constructed and severely overestimating the intelligence of its own story, it’s a frustrating mess that has saving graces in leading lady Kristen Stewart and cool visual effects, but they alone are not enough to make its hour-and-three-quarters runtime worthwhile. Booed at its Cannes premiere but beloved by many critics, it’s a deliberately strange and divisive piece, one that takes risks that really don’t pay off.
Stewart plays Maureen Cartwright, a personal shopper for the tyrannically over-privileged Kyra (Nora van Valdstatten), fetching astronomically expensive jewellery and clothes from all over Paris at all times of the day. It’s a job that Maureen despises, but she appears to be good at it, and she needs funds to stay in the city. Her twin brother Lewis died suddenly, three months before the story takes place, of a heart defect that Maureen is also burdened with, and she’s trying to contact his spirit in the house where they grew up.
These ghost hunts are easily the highlights of the film – they build genuine tension, even if they’re not particularly scary, and have a skin-prickling visual and aural power – the ghosts have a unique form, looking like grossly warped Victorian photos as they drift threateningly through Paris. Refreshingly, no one is sceptical of Maureen’s claims that her dead brother is trying to contact her – everyone from Lewis’ wife (Sigrid Bouaziz) to a creepy fashion journalist (Lars Eidinger) believes her to an extent. It helps hugely that Stewart is so immensely convincing in the lead role, whether cowering from an apparition or just surviving another lonely day.
It’s a pity that these lonely days are otherwise portrayed so lifelessly though. It could be argued that the crushing weight of grieving alone in your 20s lends itself to such a choice, but films like Manchester by the Sea and Christine have shown recently that sadness and desperation can be much, much more engaging than this. Every time that Maureen leaves her haunted childhood home, I was basically counting down the minutes until she returned, and finding comfort in the horror of a horror movie is rarely a good sign.
In the middle of the film, the more visceral threats from the spirit world give way to a mystery texter, who harangues Mauren with an impossibly intimate knowledge of her movements and thoughts. Assayas leaves multiple possibilities of who the harasser could be, but if you’ve ever watched a psychological thriller in your life, you’ll work their identity out immediately, and be incredibly frustrated that it takes the film an hour to come to the same conclusion. This frustration extends to the overall ending as well, which can be read in two ways – one of which is deeply unsatisfying, and the other of which makes no real sense with the story. It’s a shambles of a finale, doing a nice job of summing up an overconfidently messy film.