‘Personal Shopper’ somewhat works as thought-provoking window shopping
Writer/director: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger and Ty Olwin
“Personal Shopper” – Maureen (Kristen Stewart) lives in Paris and spends most of her days volleying between two activities. One should be exciting and fun, while the other usually is a frustrating affair, but – surprisingly - Maureen finds both sides of her work-coin unsatisfying and a little maddening.
She is a personal shopper for Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten), who is a fashion icon of sorts, and Maureen runs around the city’s arrondissements, buying expensive clothing and accessories. Many women that I know would kill for that job, but Maureen seems dispassionate when handing over 4,500 EUR - of someone else’s money - for a belt and two handbags. The horror, right? Well, it is a bit unfair to judge too harshly, because Kyra has a reputation as a monster, although the movie audience never really sees that behavior.
Well, the movie audience does hear what Maureen hears. Ghosts. When she is not plunking down thousands of euros for her “monster”, she is chasing ghosts. She is a medium and finds herself on a challenging quest: to receive a “sign” from her departed twin brother, Louis.
Director Olivier Assayas (“Summer Hours” (2008), “Clouds of Sils Maria” (2014)) cooks up a mash-up, a contemporary drama and a ghost story in one of the fashion capitals of the world. An odd mix, but an intriguing one, and Stewart is featured in most of the frames throughout the picture’s 1 hour 45 minutes.
Maureen is icy and despondent, and Assayas portrays beautiful Paris in the same light, in grays, blues and shadows. Nearly everywhere in town feels subdued and muted. Unimpressed with the city that surrounds her, Maureen is much more preoccupied with hearing from her late-brother while also worrying about similar health concerns that he experienced. Her bad vibes are not lost on her boyfriend (who she communicates with through Skype), local friends and the occasional acquaintance. Critics and audiences have criticized Stewart for similar, sluggish portrayals in the “Twilight” series, but she has accomplished a lot of great work since, and here, her character’s persona is set by design to fit with a melancholy tone.
In addition to Maureen’s complaints about Kyra and general disinterest, she continues her quest to find a sign from Louis, while Assayas changes the mood during some tension-filled moments. We hear things that occasionally go bump in the night (or day), and since Maureen is a medium, she and the audience wonder if the bumps and thumps are friendly ones or not. One particular plot thread dominates the second and third act, and the film repeatedly tugs on it to attempt to ramp up our anxiety. Assayas certainly weaves a mystery, but a slow-moving one, and since the collective onscreen energy feels low, that inevitably translated to this audience member.
Now, “Take Shelter” (2011), starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, has a comparable structure and possesses a similar restrained tone as “Personal Shopper”, but – in the end - it proves to be a more effective thriller. Its story - about a man, Curtis (Shannon), in rural Ohio who has visions of a massive storm that no one else can see – deliberately builds up tension over its 2-hour runtime and feels more singularly-focused. Also, Curtis emotionally explodes in the second act, and his shocking actions truly capture the turmoil that is gurgling inside of him. At the moment of truth, the film more than delivers its expected payoff.
Unfortunately, the payoff in “Personal Shopper” – possibly due to a roaming narrative and persistently cool performances - unfolds as a curiosity rather than a dramatic conclusion.
Krya’s boyfriend, Ingo (Lars Eidinger), pops in on a couple of occasions as a curiosity as well, but Assayas seems to clip those threads, and the opportunity for an effective, meaningful layer becomes lost. We are left with Maureen’s general malaise in a story of shopping and ghost hunting duties. I do highly commend Assayas’ penchant for risk-taking, but neither storyline successfully sold me. Then again, the film somewhat works as thought-provoking window shopping, especially in Paris.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.