TIFF Journal: ‘Personal Shopper’

'Personal Shopper'

Movie Rating:


Ever wondered what it would look like if a French art house specialist decided to make a haunted house picture with the star of ‘Twilight’? Well, now you’ll kind of know. Following their acclaimed ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’, writer/director Olivier Assayas reteams with his unexpected muse Kristen Stewart for a bizarre ghost story as rooted in painful memory and regret as in supernatural scares.

‘Personal Shopper’ is an intriguing experiment. Assayas delivers some genuinely impressive set-pieces, as well as plenty of expected pretentions. The film will likely end up being too arty for the genre crowd and too lurid for the artsy-fartsy types, but those who fall somewhere in the middle should appreciate the oddball combination of ideas and influences.

K-Stew stars as Maureen, the personal shopper of the title. She spends her days buying absurdly expensive clothing and accessories around France for her celebrity boss (Nora von Waldstätten), the specifics of whose fame are unclear. She’s also a little obsessed with ghosts, telling people that she’s a medium and determined to find the spirit of her recently deceased brother.

The movie flip-flops from Maureen living out her odd and dehumanizing job for the rich and her attempts to contact her brother. In the process of the latter, she also encounters a few other unspecified spirits. Eventually, she starts receiving mysterious text messages. This turns into a long, almost exclusively text sequence that might be a haunting or might be a psychopath. Either way, it will almost certainly end in blood. Like everything else in the film, it’s hard to tell just how seriously the filmmaker takes the material, or if he wants the audience to take it seriously either.

Presumably, Assayas is trying to draw some sort of parallel between his protagonist’s oddly slave-like classist profession and a haunting. (Maybe she’s as dead as her brother? Eww… I hope not.) As usual, the filmmaker has a fragmented storytelling style that leaves things opaquely vague and open for interpretation. However, this time, the intellectual undercurrents feel a bit forced. Fortunately, as an exercise in style and scares, it works well enough. Assayas has a knack for creep-out suspense and delivers more than a few unsettling moments. Stewart proves to be a strong anchor. Her performance isn’t quite as good as she was in ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’, but she’s always lip-bitingly believable and sells some of the movie’s most ridiculous scenes.

As far as arty haunting movies go, ‘Personal Shopper’ is effective, and many of the dangling mysteries only add to the atmosphere even if that wasn’t intended. Unfortunately, whatever deeper intentions Assayas may or may not have had in the back of his mind don’t translate nearly as well. The movie fails a bit as an art film and will likely irritate fans of the director seeking out such things. Whether or not the idea of a ‘Conjuring’-style flick with French film pretentions is for you is a reasonable question. If nothing else, it will be the most unique ghost flick of the year, for better or worse.


    • Phil is recovering in exhaustion from the festival and probably has not checked the comments here yet. Birth of the Dragon is not among the reviews he sent me, so I assume he didn’t get to that one.

      • Timcharger

        Hey Josh, since we have polls every week,
        why not for next year, before TIFF, have a poll
        on what films Phil should check out? We poll
        what TV shows we are looking forward to, why
        not participate in his film-festival-ing? Maybe
        tie this in with E’s trailer posts? A list of trailers
        of TIFF scheduled films?

        • We tried that with a Roundtable once. Almost no one responded.

          Literally hundreds of movies play at TIFF every year. Most of them you will not have heard of beforehand. Having done TIFF a few times, the movies you see are often less about what you WANT to see than what you can fit into a packed schedule. The festival experience involves a lot of strategizing about what movies are playing near your current location that have a start time you can get to without crossing town.

          One of the best things about a festival like this is discovering small movies that may not have much buzz and that you may not even know anything about. When you walk out of one screening and see that something else is going to start in ten minutes at the same theater, you hop in that line and hope for the best. Often you won’t be able to predict in advance what your favorite movie of the festival will be.

      • Timcharger

        The Bruce Lee character is back on film, and you missed it?
        (Not suggesting it was/will be any good.) We’ve had 5 or 6
        films about Bruce Lee’s teacher, so it’s good to know that
        the icon will be back on the big screen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *