Tuesday 17 December 2019

Movie Review: Personal Shopper (2016)

A psychological drama with horror elements, Personal Shopper delves into one woman's grief, but gets tangled into an unseemly knot of narrative loose ends.

In Paris, Maureen (Kristen Stewart) works as a personal shopper for jet-setting supermodel Kyra (Nora Waldst├Ątten). Maureen is also grieving the recent passing of her twin brother Lewis, who died from a heart condition that she also suffers from. Maureen also dabbles as a spiritual medium, a gift Lewis also possessed and nurtured more seriously. Lewis had promised to send Maureen a signal from the afterlife within 3 months of dying. She spends spooky nights in his empty and dark large house waiting for the signal, but instead encounters another seemingly anguished ghost. 

Maureen meets Ingo (Lars Eidinger), who claims to be Kyra's about-to-be-dumped secret lover, then on a trip to London she starts receiving mysterious texts encouraging her to venture into what is forbidden and try on the expensive clothes she buys for Kyra. With no clear signal from Lewis forthcoming and her grief enduring, Maureen stumbles upon a horrifying shock.

The special bond between twins is the unseen force propelling most of the emotions in Personal Shopper. Director and writer Olivier Assayas ups the sibling ante by saddling Maureen with the same physical affliction that claimed her brother's life. Now she is suspended in her bereavement, questioning her longevity, sense of belonging and her efficacy as a medium, all while awaiting his signal from the afterlife, should it exist.

Around this core Assayas builds an unquestionably unique film that invents its own rules. Personal Shopper contains a few sequences of spectral suspense and one blood-drenched crime scene, but is otherwise devoid of scares. Instead the film meanders towards obscure art history, philosophy, and recreations of Victor Hugo's seance experiments. A large segment is occupied with a long texting exchange between Maureen and an unknown communicator, the film reduced to tracking messages on a phone screen.

As a viewing experience it's all unquestionably original and stubborn in its lack of adherence to any expectations or genre conventions, but also more than a bit exasperating.

And while Maureen's intense grief and potentially damaged psyche persist as themes, from about the halfway mark onwards events start to spiral in many uncoordinated directions at once. Assayas is clearly aiming for a challenging narrative open to many interpretations, but the film slips towards incomprehension and an unsatisfying "any explanation will do" pothole.

Although no justification is provided for Lewis occupying a mansion-style house before his death, it does provide Assayas with a grand playground for the more traditional bump-in-the-night scenes. The foreboding abode is also a good counterpoint to Kyra's sleek and modern apartment, full of temptations for a personal shopper granted access to the space but not the clothes.

The film is centred almost entirely on Maureen, and Kristen Stewart delivers a quite stunning performance. She is required to interact with both the real and unseen worlds, plus convey Maureen's domineering sense of loss while still functioning in her soulless job. Stewart does it all with a supreme sense of grounded reality, and on the few occasions when Maureen almost loses it, Stewart projects an aching level of pragmatic self-doubt.

But the performance is unfortunately better than the film. Personal Shopper ultimately wanders down too many obscure aisles, and emerges with precious little to show for it.

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