‘Personal Shopper’ Review: Artfully Empty, Persuasively Creepy

'Personal Shopper'

Movie Rating:


Kristen Stewart’s commitment to following up her infamous run as the ‘Twilight’ heroine with an esoteric art house career continues in ‘Personal Shopper’. This time, she reunites with her ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’ director for a ghost story that also wants to be about something deeper without ever committing to an intelligible subtext.

Yes, finally, we have a movie that answers the question: What would it would look like if a pretentious French auteur decided to dabble in a C-grade ‘Conjuring’ or ‘Paranormal Activity’ knockoff? Writer/director Olivier Assayas has mixed genre and art house elements in his projects in the past, but never to the extent of ‘Personal Shopper’. His current muse and former ‘Twilight’ starlet Kristen Stewart headlines as Maureen, a young woman who claims to be a medium. She’s obsessed with contacting her recently deceased twin brother in Paris. She also works a soul-crushing job as a personal shopper, spending her days buying ludicrously overpriced clothes and jewelry for an unspecified celebrity. What the connection is between those two plot strands is likely a metaphor for contemporary soullessness known only to Assayas and possibly Stewart. Thankfully, the genre element works surprisingly well.

Assayas’ coldly distant aesthetic translates to suspense sequences well enough. He stages a few overt haunting scenes (completely with a tastefully employed CGI “presence”) along with a long creepy text conversation between Maureen and either a ghost or a killer, which gets far more suspense mileage out of a movie star staring at a cell phone than should be possible. The film has an effectively creepy atmosphere and ever mounting sense of dread. Viewers will find themselves pulled in and unsettled almost instantly. While the soul-crushing subtext of the movie always remains frustratingly out of reach, that somehow adds to the tension of the piece in an odd way. There’s a mystery here that’s impossible to solve, but you can’t help but be drawn in. For the most part, that ineffable and unattainable solution proves to add to the creepy spell.

At the center of it, Stewart proves yet again to be quite a strong actress when not struggling to spit out impossible ‘Twilight’ dialogue. She’s quite good here, which is pretty gosh darn important given that she’s in almost every scene. Thankfully, Stewart has given up her lip-biting “smell the fart” acting style that helped make ‘Twilight’ so insufferable and actually creates a very human and pained character. She’s tortured of course, in both emo and haunted ways. Stewart digs into that material with relish. While her performance here isn’t quite as strong as her award-winning work in Assayas’ previous feature, it’s good enough to suggest that this director/star pairing has a special magic that could continue through a few more movies. Hopefully the next one is a bit more clearly executed than this muddled mess.

Had the movie been an unapologetic exercise in haunted horror from Assayas and Stewart, it might have had a shot at being a sleeper hit. Unfortunately, that’s just not how this filmmaker works, and it’s certainly not the type of movie that Stewart wants to make. Between all the effective haunting beats and the scenes where Stewart looks sad, there’s an attempt to pile on some sort of heavy-handed metaphor about class and identity and celebrity and god knows what else. It’s hard to say. Undoubtedly, Assayas and Stewart had many long conversations about their lofty goals that they sadly never expressed through their movie. (Or maybe they never talked about it, but should have. Tough to say.) As a result, the filmmaker’s more abstract themes never quite pan out, and that tames his would-be art shocker to schlock without much deep impact.

In the end, the movie won’t satisfy Assayas’ usual art house crowd, but it could well please horror fans with patience. ‘Personal Shopper’ is an oddball effort trapped between wildly different filmmaking ambitions. That off-kilter energy is both a curious strength and an uncomfortable weakness.

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