Personal Shopper is not a very accessible experience. But in its place is an originality whose effect still seeps into my interpretation, and it lingers long after the viewing experience. This is a special film. Olivier Assayas’ ghost-drama film bears the slow-burning realist trademarks of European cinema but often dabbles in many different tonal shifts that it becomes indiscernible. It is striking in effects and yet, much like taking a second glance at a ghost, is wholly invisible. An intimate look into the life shadowing behind Paris haute-couture unravels layers of psyche behind many more layers of fear, identity and purpose. It’s hard to say what Personal Shopper is about because even as I write this review, I’m still twirling ideas in my head trying to grasp what Assayas’ intense psychological maelstrom is about, though I’m more attuned to how Kristen Stewart’s deeply human performance tells me about dislocation and disconnect within ourselves.
Kristen Stewart’s brilliantly emotional role is understated in her own special way. Raw, unadulterated and conflicted, Stewart’s Maureen was an interesting focal point for me to try to understand and empathize. Part of the frustration and, at the same time, part of the appeal of the movie is how Personal Shopper demands so much of Kristen Stewart’s performance. There’s absolute terror in one scene, and uncertainty threatening to throw Maureen off her balance, followed by scenes of her frivolously trying clothes on and pleasuring herself. Even within each individual scene itself, Kristen Stewart’s range goes from one end to the other as she juggles her character in this challenging film. One aspect of the film, among a few others, didn’t really make an impact on me. A great deal of the film (especially the middle chunk) is dedicated to texting and text messages between Maureen and a mysterious ‘anonymous’. From the way the movie built it up, the ‘anonymous’ person was certainly not a surprise and the messages that he/she sends is not just meaninglessly cryptic but also childish. It does nothing to our understanding of the relationship she has with this person in the past…which still remains limited till the end of the film. I think it greatly hindered, in turn, an appreciation of what Maureen might be thinking and what this ‘anonymous’ was actually trying to tell her. Maureen’s irritation with the puzzling texts soon became my frustration in seeing the film mistaking suspense and mystery with needless frivolity. Considering the plot of the film, they really didn’t need to go in this direction.
But I have to give some praise to the film’s ambitious vision. I just hope my praise is not for some pseudo-profundity from combining so many elements together and not really saying anything concrete. It could very well be a mess to some. But Kristen Stewart’s performance really gave some sort of light in the fumbling darkness. In fact, her strong performance illuminated Maureen as a character of great complexity and managed to bring out a sense of empathy in me. In her haunting performance, Maureen’s tenuous relationship with the afterlife makes us feel equally doubtful of the direction the film is taking. I’m still not convinced in what Assayas is trying to say about the supernatural, but I am shaken by Maureen’s fragmented identity. In the same vein, I don’t think the film successfully brought across its overarching ideas. But I was sold on how Stewart’s Maureen navigated between worlds and even between parts of herself, to find her purpose. Stewart’s mental struggle and conflict is so real, that even as the film is about ghosts and the afterlife, her character pricks the surface of reality and reminds us once more that her thoughts, desires and fears are real. Without Kristen Stewart, I think the film would have flopped.
In the end, I can only use Stewart’s performance and the way she handled Maureen as the main source of interpretation. I thought her character embodied polarity and internal conflict that pretty much characterizes any human being. Ultimately, Maureen’s relationship with the supernatural is freaky as it should be, but also provokes the idea of how the spirit world is never too distant from our own tangible reality. In the cinematic world, we get too many movies telling us how ghosts are always out to get us and that they are always a realized force. Personal Shopper may not be a very cohesive film but at least it shows you a different idea of the spiritual world. More importantly, by mixing Maureen’s journey of finding herself with a spiritual voice, the ambiguous existence of the ‘ghost’ explores nuances in a coming-of-age story. Is there really another ‘voice’? Or is that voice just our own? It opens up a sea of interesting questions. I was just hoping Personal Shopper explored it with more conviction.
Rating: 6.5/10 P.s. Kristen Stewart was SO hot in the movie 😉